Death by drowning on the rise


The death of five children by drowning last month in Dhanusha made headlines. A week later, two boys drowned in a pit left by a brick kiln in Mahottari. On Friday, five people died of drowning in Banke and Chitwan.

Hot summers, rivers in spate, and pits left by sand miners and brick kilns make up a deadly combination which means that drowning is a common occurrence across the country, particular in the Tarai. 

There is no nationwide tally, but a 2015 survey based on Nepal Police data found that there were 1,507 cases of drowning between January 2013 and December 2015.

Nepal is among the most vulnerable countries to drowning with a death rate of 5.4 per 10,000 population, according to the world Health Organisation (WHO). The rate for Bangladesh and India are 4.6 and 3.8 respectively. It was much lower for Sri Lanka and the Maldives at 3.2 each, and 2.1 for Bhutan.

In 2019, over 144,000 people drowned in the Asia-Pacific region, accounting for 61% of global drowning deaths, according to the first regional assessments on drowning prevention released ahead of World Drowning Prevention Day, which is being marked for the first time on 25 July 2021.

Drowning claimed the lives of an estimated 70,000 and 74,000 people in the Southeast Asia and Western Pacific regions, respectively, and experts warn that climate change places already vulnerable communities and people at increased risk of drowning.

More frequent and extreme weather events due to the climate crisis can lead to frequent and intense floods, increasing the exposure of populations to potentially hazardous situations along waterbodies. 

“Despite many lives being lost each year, drowning remains a largely unrecognised threat to health and well-being,” says Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for south and southeast Asia. 

She adds: “We need to work across all sectors to develop national water safety plans and policies and implement tested and low-cost water safety interventions to prevent drowning and save lives. No child or adult should lose their life to drowning.”

In Asia, most drowning deaths occur among children and men. Of the 70,000 drowning deaths in the region in 2019, more than a third were among children aged under 15 years. On average, men were three to four times more likely to drown than women. 

Even in case of rescue or resuscitation, the survivor often suffers from severe brain damage resulting in memory problems, learning disabilities and permanent loss of basic function.

The best practices on drowning prevention include day care for children, the use of barriers for controlling access to water, public awareness campaigns focused on behaviour change, and policies and legislation on water safety, including regulation of recreational boating and maritime transport.

In Dhanusha tragedy, one of the girls had problems staying afloat in a pond and her four other friends died one after another while trying to save her. Construction contractors have left large gaping holes along river banks and road embankments that fill up during the monsoon and become death traps for children.

WHO is initiating prevention measures for children that include survival swim and water skills training in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, community-based daycare for young children in Bangladesh, India and Thailand, and improved information systems and public awareness campaigns focused on behaviour change in Thailand.

"We are proud to be able to highlight, through these two reports, examples from our member states of leadership, innovation and strong partnerships within and beyond the health sector on drowning prevention,” says Takeshi Kasai, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific.