Two young children play in a lagoon in Durban to escape the sweltering summer heat. Its shallow depths provide them a false sense of security. The children don’t notice it gradually getting deeper. Before they realise it, the ground has disappeared from beneath their feet and they slip below the water’s surface. Attempts to rescue them are redundant. This is how drowning happens: quickly, quietly and more often than you might think.
According to the NSRI, every year approximately 600 children drown in South Africa. It is believed that 90% of these drownings are in pools and are under supervision. It is not uncommon for pools to lack proper fencing, gates to be left open or covers to be missing entirely. ‘“Why was the pool open?” is my question. Why did the child have access to the pool? If they didn’t, the child would be alive today,’ says swimming instructor Glynnis Cameron from Nibbling Little Toes Swim School. Parents and carers must realise that one inch of water is deep enough for a child to drown in and that many of them don’t know nearly enough about water to keep their children safe.
According to Andrew Ingram, Public Education Manager from Water Wise Academy, the most common way children drown in South Africa is while attempting to help friends who are struggling in the water. Often, one child sees another panicking and tries to help. Sadly, in many cases, both children end up drowning.
Ingram explains how easily it can happen, ‘One child gets into deep water, the second child tries to give a hand to pull them out and then they both fall in. The third child will run away and hide and nobody will hear about the story.’ This means the number of unreported drownings, following incidents like these, are in fact much higher than proclaimed.
‘Children have no concept of danger, they will just run into the water,’ Cameron adds. Children get excited to go to the pool or beach; once they get there they will often race to the water without any assistance. She adds that children also, not realising the danger, will reach for toys that are lying in the pool and accidentally fall in. Drowning can happen very quickly and sadly many kids die before they even have a chance to call for help.
Yaseen Simon, a swimming instructor at Headstart Swim School and lifeguard, warns of other perils children face in the water. He explains the irony of when they do scream for help. ‘They are trying to shout and scream and [start] panicking, they then drown faster because more water is getting into their mouths.’
Simon adds ‘If you are uncertain whether or not your child can swim, keep them in water where they can stand, and always be at their side. If anything happens then they can just stand up. You have to tell them: if mommy or daddy are not around, you are not allowed to swim.’ Also, if the child isn’t a strong swimmer in a pool he should not be left alone by the sea.
‘Never panic, the calmer you are, the safer you will be, the easier it gets for you to be safe,’ is another important rule Simon has. ‘The ocean will always pull you in before it pushes you out; if you’re not calm you might die.’ He is referring the phenomena of rip currents, channels of fast flowing water, often invisible to the untrained eye, that have the power to pull even an adult out to sea in seconds.
Cameron agrees, there has to be clear rules when it comes to water and the safety for everybody, especially kids. The pool gate has to be closed after every time somebody opens it. Parents have to teach their children that they can only enter the water when certain people are with them. Cameron adds ‘If the rules are strict if you walk into the pool area, the rule is to stay out of the pool, incidences can be prevented.’ Pool cover or fences are necessary; they have to be installed for the safety of everybody.
Safety on the beach is an important topic for the City of Cape Town. Starting from 5 November 2016, 12 permanent and 100 seasonal lifeguards were recruited to ensure safety on the beach during peak season. However, Simon would like more attention given to the importance of swim schools. ‘The government doesn’t really address the issue and make parents aware how important swimming is.’ Swimming schools do not receive any financial help or subsidies in order to get materials for their swimming lessons.
However, it is a daunting task to teach every single one of 18 million children living in South Africa how to swim. Because of this education should be the main focus. Water Wise Academy has taught water safety to one million children since 2006. ‘It just has to be the correct lesson, given at the correct time,’ Ingram from the NSRI explains. The lessons must be child friendly and easy to understand which, is another challenge swim schools and the government must face.
The government has listed water safety lessons in their Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement, which covers water safety from Grade 3 to 6 and is strongly recommended. The sections include topics like danger in and around water as well as safety rules in home and public swimming pools, rivers and dams. The lessons incorporate kicking and breathing exercises combined with various swimming styles. The curriculum in Grade 4 also includes the basics of first aid.
Some cities are taking their own initiative to increase safety around pools. In 2014 the City of Johannesburg introduced a new law which says that every person with a private pool has to have a pool cover or fence and that children under seven cannot enter the pool enclosure without the accompaniment of an adult over 18. Furthermore, every pool has to be registered. Sadly, this only applied for the province of Johannesburg. But it is a start in the right direction.
Cameron as well as Simon have noticed improvements; parents are bringing their children earlier to swimming lessons and because of social media, they are becoming more aware of the risks and dangers surrounding the water. The NSRI has created a video, Break the Grip of the Rip, which reached over 30,000 people about rip current and what to do if you have found yourself in one. You can watch it here.
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