They only took their eyes off their seven-year-old daughter for a few minutes, and she almost drowned. It was a family outing that almost turned tragic for financial controller Sheila Virumandi, 43, and her husband, businessman Anand Nadason, 43, who had spent the afternoon at a swimming pool with their daughter Anushree.
“We were packing up to go home and didn’t realise Anushree had jumped back into the pool. By chance, my husband saw Anushree’s head bobbing up and down, and she was gasping for air. He immediately dived into the water to pull her out,” recalls the mother of two.
Sheila still shudders at the memory of the 2015 incident. Shaken by the near tragedy, the couple decided to enrol their children for swimming lessons. “We could have lost Anushree right in front of our eyes. It made me realise how quickly a person can drown, even under parental supervision,” says Sheila.
According to the Malaysian Statistics Department, an average of 606 people died annually from drowning between 2009 and 2013. Almost half of the cases involved children and teenagers. On average, two people die from drowning each day. It is one of the top causes of death among children between the ages of one and four.
Universiti Putra Malaysia’s (UPM) Safe Kids Malaysia’s 2014 Drowning Prevention Among Children report states that an average of 296 children (between a few months old and 19 years) drowned from 2002 to 2011. Drowning occurs in rivers, canals, beaches, lakes, disused mining pools and swimming pools. The states with the highest number of casualties are Kelantan, Johor and Selangor, said the report.
Safe Kids Worldwide is a global organisation dedicated to protecting children from unintentional injuries. UPM’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences hosts Safe Kids’ Malaysian chapter.
Drowning happens when a person’s airway is immersed in liquid, leading to difficulty in breathing, says Safe Kids Malaysia’s executive director Assoc Professor Dr Kulanthayan KC Mani. A small child can drown in a few centimetres of water in a bucket or in a rice field.
“Uncovered or unprotected water supplies, unsafe water crossings, lack of water safety awareness and risky behaviour around water can lead to drowning,” says Dr Kulanthayan, listing risk factors that can lead to water tragedies. Other risk factors include the lack of physical barriers between people and water, flood disasters and travelling on water, especially on overcrowded or poorly maintained vessels.
Lack of knowledge of water safety, survival and rescue skills can lead to drowning too, says Life Saving Society Malaysia deputy president (training, safety and health) Geh Thuan Tek.
“During low tide, one can walk far out into the sea. But when high tide sets in, the water level rises quickly. If you’re stuck far out at sea, it could be a challenge to swim to shore,” he explains, adding that teachers should organise camps on water safety and rescue skills for students.
Due to the increasing number of drowning cases, the Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Ministry set up the Water Activity Safety Council (WASC) in May last year. It was set up to coordinate the activities, campaigns and training related to water safety by the relevant agencies, private sector and non-governmental organisations.
WASC’s objective is to reduce accidents at water bodies and lessen negligence, indifference and failure to comply with rules, warnings and safety signage. WASC member Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye says drowning cases involving students are a common occurrence during school holidays and monsoon seasons.
“Drowning occurs when there is a lack of supervision by parents and teachers,” says Lee, urging schools and Parent-Teacher Associations to work hand in hand to educate students on swimming and its risks.
“Students must be concerned about their safety when participating in outdoor activities, particularly those involving water. Local authorities should also conduct checks at recreational areas to ensure there are adequate signage, protective equipment and other safety measures to keep the public safe,” says Lee, adding that the Health Ministry is preparing a national childhood drowning registry as part of a surveillance system to reduce such cases.
In 2013, Safe Kids Malaysia conducted an introductory swimming class as a pilot programme in SJK (T) Kajang, Selangor. Thanks to the initiative, 150 students are now able to swim.
Water-related outings – whether at the seaside, waterfalls, rivers, theme parks and swimming pools – are often fun and boisterous, and it’s all too easy to let our guards down. But water conditions in nature can be unpredictable and anyone, even strong swimmers, can be caught unaware and risk drowning. A swimmer in shallow waters could be caught by a rip tide, and a group frolicking in a calm river or waterfall could be swept away by a sudden gush of water.
People in water can get into difficulties within seconds and rapidly become helpless. Typically, when a victim realises that they cannot keep their head above water, they tend to panic. This leads to the classic “surface struggle”, where they flounder and thrash in an upright position, out of control.
Unlike in the movies, drowning is almost always a silent occurrence. The victims are struggling to breathe and cannot stop to shout for help. Hence, parents must be especially vigilant when their children are swimming, be it in their apartment swimming pool, in the river or a calm pond.
It’s not advisable to get distracted by a telephone call or be absorbed in a Facebook feed when you are supervising children in the water. In fact, Geh says people need to be alert even before anyone has stepped into the water. He says everyone needs to be aware of the weather conditions and read signboards in the vicinity.
“Look out for warning signs. Never be caught off guard in unknown territories, be it at the waterfalls, beaches and rivers, says Geh. “If it rains while you’re wading in a waterfall pool, get out of the water immediately. Slow moving water in a river could turn into rapid currents which could sweep away anyone in its path,” says the swimming examiner and instructor.
At the beach, there are hazards such as rocks, mud and jellyfish. Look out for hidden dangers including strong winds, rapid undertow and rip currents. Even experienced swimmers can drown, especially when wading against strong currents or a rip current, he adds.
“Rip currents are dangerous as they can carry unsuspecting victims out to sea. Keep an eye out when water level rises during high tide.”
Swimming instructor Ram Gloria suggests that people ensure there are life vests and safety tubes in the vicinity when they take children swimming. But if someone gets into trouble, Ram cautions against jumping into the water to rescue the victim.
“Only dive in to rescue a victim if you’re a strong swimmer. Weak swimmers could put themselves and drowning victims in further danger. When possible, throw in a flotation device or extend a rod or pole,” explains Ram, adding that it is vital to alert others when a person is attempting to rescue someone.
Learn survival skills
One of the most important skills children need to learn is swimming, as soon as they are ready for classes. In his three decades as a swimming coach, Ram has taught everyone from toddlers to octogenarians.
“Babies take to swimming like ducks to water. Because they have spent nine months ‘swimming’ in their mother’s womb, they adapt to water easily. It’s never too late to learn to swim as it helps not only with survival skills, but is also a healthy form of exercise,” explains Ram.
Besides learning different strokes, students are also taught water safety. “Always swim with a buddy. Do not go out in the sea, waterfall or river in threatening weather conditions. It’s best to go swimming when there is a lifeguard on standby.”
When children are taught water safety, they are more aware of risk factors and take heed of warnings.
Ram says that it is also essential for all swimmers to learn how to tread water. Treading water is a way to keep your head above the surface while your body stays upright. Your arms and legs move to keep you afloat, with your body in a vertical position.
“While water treading is a basic survival skill, it isn’t as easy as it seems. It can be tiring if done wrongly,” says Ram.
Other water survival skills are back floating, side-stroke and breaststroke which can help swimmers conserve energy and move efficiently.
Swimming in clothes?
Some swimming instructors even get their students to swim fully-clothed so they are familiar with how clothes can weigh them down in water. This is deemed to be an important lesson as sometimes people drown when they fall into the water while boating or fishing or in other accidents, when they are fully-clothed.
“The key rule is to stay calm. It’s best to learn how to swim and keep safe in water. It’s always better to be safe rather than sorry,” says Ram.