It’s a scenario we hear of all too often. Children go out to play in a mining pool or river. They have fun. But suddenly, someone is struggling in the water. A friend or sibling dives in to help. Eventually, they all drown. Or some end up with brain damage.
After the usual outpouring of emotion in newspapers and social media, these incidents wash past us. How many of us remember the incident in Bukit Beruntung, Selangor, last year? In that tragedy, seven children, aged between nine and 12, drowned when they were swept away by fast-flowing water in Sungai Selangor. The search to find them involved 115 people.
Last week, a 17-year-old drowned in an old mining pool in Puchong, Selangor. Six personnel from the Fire and Rescue Department died while trying to save him.
They’re just accidents, we’re told.
But they happen habitually.
According to reported data, on average two people, mostly children, die every day from drowning, which works out to about 700 drowning deaths in a year.
Disturbingly, the research available shows little change in the numbers over the years. In other words, we’re not doing enough. We just tell children to keep away from water. Great strategy, that.
Drowning deaths are far higher than, say, deaths from dengue. Yet what do we hear more of? Or imagine the uproar if these deaths were due to drugs.
Drowning is, in fact, a huge problem in Asia. It’s a leading cause of death among children in many Asian countries. In Bangladesh, it takes 50 lives a day. China, Thailand and Vietnam also have high drowning statistics, according to the Global Drowning Fund, which aims to reduce Asian drowning deaths.
The fund advocates a “Swim Safe” programme to teach children basic swimming and water safety skills. Evidence shows that this is the single most effective way to prevent children over five years old from drowning.Portable above-ground pools and shallow ponds have been used to teach swimming in Bangladesh and Vietnam, where swimming pools are not easily available.
It’s high time we consider this in Malaysia, especially given our extensive coastlines and rivers. In fact, the Education Ministry is now looking at introducing school swimming lessons. The idea was mooted by the prime minister himself.
Many countries – Australia, Germany, Netherlands and the Nordic countries for example – have compulsory swimming lessons in the primary school curriculum. It is a requirement to learn to swim, just as it is to learn Maths. And why not? Algebra may not save your life, but knowing how to swim might.
These school programmes aim primarily to keep children safe rather than produce great swimmers for competition. In Germany, for example, children work to get the basic-level badge, “Seepferdchen”, or seahorses, which requires the child to swim 25m.
Incidentally, German schoolchildren are also drilled on road safety throughout primary school in programmes that involve local police. Can anything be more important than teaching children to stay alive?
Obviously, the logistics of bussing children to pools isn’t easy. Perhaps we could start with those most at risk: Selangor and the East Coast states have high drowning rates; and boys are also far more at risk than girls.
Children should also be taught about water safety, how to assess danger and how to react in emergencies.
Assessing situations for risk and danger is a key part of survival. In the Puchong tragedy, was it a prudent for the rescuers to go into the water when no victim could be seen on the surface?
A proper risk assessment of the situation is critical, said Malaysian water rescue expert Chan Yuen-Li.
“Was it a rescue or a body recovery?” For the latter, the situation would not have warranted rescuers rushing into the water.
Chan, the regional director for Rescue 3 International, the leading global provider of technical rescue training, noted the rescuers went into a low dam (weir), which is known to be one of the most treacherous man-made hazards in moving water.
The tragedy should spur us to improve our rescue training. Chan added that experience, practice and judgement are also important.
In my view, as a nation, we lack a safety-conscious mindset. That’s something we need to cultivate.
First off, we should stop saying accidents are “just accidents”! And, please, let’s not trot out the acts-of-God line either.
Accidents are where we need to act, with the appropriate response or safety measure. If we fail to act, then God forbid, we’re sunk for another terrible tragedy to happen.