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WSNZ issues 2021 Drowning Report - 90 New Zealanders drowned in 2021

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) today issued the final Drowning Report 2021[1] updating the Provisional Report issued in late January.

Tragically, last year 90 people drowned, an increase on the provisional annual drowning statistics (74 drownings) and the worst year for drowning fatalities since 2011, when there were 91 drowning deaths.

WSNZ’s Chief Executive, Daniel Gerrard, said: “Everyone was shocked by the number of drowning fatalities last summer, but this latest update shows that last year was the worst for a decade.

Tragic Reminder

While we all cherish our relationship with water, these tragedies could and should not happen and are a tragic reminder of the importance of being cautious around water.”

The report categorises drownings according to the nature of the incident; preventable fatality or hospitalisation, age, gender and ethnicity of the victim and nature, and cause of the incident including activity and environment and a host of other factors.

Daniel Gerrard said, “This data helps us better understand New Zealand’s drowning problem – the risk factors and groups most at risk of drowning. It will also inform our future funding decisions and work to help ensure all New Zealanders have the knowledge required to safely connect with and enjoy the water.

“Drowning is preventable, and we now know that last year ninety whanau lost a loved one, the worst year for drowning fatalities since 2011 when there were 91 drowning deaths. Collectively, we all have to make better decisions around water.”

Last year, of the total drowning fatalities, 76 were men and 14 women. The drowning fatality data shows that swimmers in rivers were likely to be Māori men, fishers were likely to be Asian men aged 35 plus fishing from rocks, underwater deaths were likely to be Māori men aged 35-65, and power boating deaths were more likely to be Asian or NZ European men aged 45 plus in tidal waters. Deaths of under 5s occurred outside of the home environment in rivers, lakes and a water bore.

Drowning remains the leading cause of recreational death in New Zealand and the third highest cause of accidental death. The challenge here is significant and is why we need others to help.

People from all backgrounds and ethnicities drown, but this year’s report highlights Māori and Asian New Zealander's drowning rates are getting worse, not better. As are drowning rates for males and those over 45 years of age.

The number of people drowning is a wake-up call telling us that the way that we interact with water needs to change. It’s a shared responsibility to reduce our drowning rate. The NZ Water Safety sector is taking this seriously, but so must all Kiwis who are spending time in and around water. Ultimately, we all need to make better decisions to ensure that ourselves, our whanau and our friends are safe around water.

The report also highlights the activities and locations where people drown. This information helps focus efforts of those in the water safety sector to ensure that interventions are targeting those most at risk in the right places at the right time.

WSNZ is encouraging people to make better decisions around water by:

  • Staying within an arm’s reach of all kids under five at any time when they are near water. In 2021 all the Under Five drowning deaths occurred outside the home and garden.

  • Taking someone with you and keeping an eye on each other when you are spending time in or near water. In 2021 44 per cent (40) of drowning fatalities occurred when the person was alone.

  • Checking the weather conditions and wearing a lifejacket at all times when out on a boat. In 2021 85 per cent (11) of Powered Boating drowning deaths occurred on boats smaller than 6m.

  • Wearing a lifejacket when fishing from the shore in case something goes wrong. In 2021 almost all Land Based Fishing drowning deaths were angling.

Daniel Gerrard said:

Every preventable death is devasting to a family/whanau and the community. The facts speak for themselves, children under 5 need to be within arm’s reach and within sight when in or around water, you are more likely to get into trouble or drown when they swim alone, and you should always wear a life jacket when boating or fishing from the shore

“Our drowning toll is something every New Zealander should see as a national disgrace and one we all have a responsibility to address. We all need to make better decisions around water.

“Remember the water safety code. Be prepared, watch out for yourself and each other, be aware of the dangers and know your limits.”


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