Image features three men standing in front of a river. They are on a fishing trip. The text says "make the right call to keep your mates safe". Image is from the Royal Life Saving Australia

Pandemic blamed for drowning spike as new studies highlight risks to children and migrants

Pandemic blamed for drowning spike as new studies highlight risks to children and migrants

Jeremy Lasek – PHAA

Australians’ love of the water is continuing to prove deadly, with a new report from Royal Life Saving Australia finding more than 500 young children drowned in Australia in the past 19 years.

Of the 532 children who died, 40% were aged one, with 77% of drownings happening after a fall into water. In almost all instances, the child was not being supervised by an adult when they entered the water. On average, 22 children aged 0-4 years drown in Australia each year, with 52% of childhood drownings in swimming pools.

These worrying stats have prompted the launch of Royal Life Saving Australia’s new water safety program ‘Always Keep Watch’ to keep children safe around water this summer.

Meanwhile, the impact of the pandemic is partly to blame for a 20 per cent spike in drowning deaths around Australia in the past year, according to life saving organisations.

The latest data from Royal Life Saving Australia and Surf Life Saving Australia reveal 294 people drowned in the past year, compared to 245 in the previous 12 months.

The number losing their lives in inland rivers and waterways increased by more than half during 2020-21.

The jump came despite COVID restrictions limiting the movement of people in some states for months, and blocking the arrival of tens of thousands of overseas travellers.

Surf Life Saving Australia says the fact that these drowning stats went up without the usual influx of international tourists and students, make the results even more sobering.

There were 75 drownings at creeks and rivers – that’s a 53 per cent increase on the previous 12 months.

The lifting of COVID restrictions towards the end of 2020 has been linked to a corresponding increase in rescues and drowning deaths.

The pandemic stoked other fears among rescue groups with many pools closed and swimming lessons suspended.

It’s raising concerns as we come out of another lockdown period, as the weather warms up and people look to get back to the beaches, rivers, and other waterways.

Migrants at risk in the water

While migration numbers and overseas visitation has dropped dramatically over the past two years, a study published in the Australian New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZJPH) describes the risk factors contributing to drowning among migrants in Australia.

Cases were extracted from the National Coronial Information System over a 10-year period (1 July 2009 to 30 June 2019) and cross-referenced with the Royal Life Saving Australia’s National Fatal Drowning Database.

The ANZJPH article says few national health strategies and/or policies exist in Australia that specifically focus on the health of migrant or culturally diverse populations.

The Australian Water Safety Strategy is one example of a national strategy that specifically highlights a need to focus on migrant communities.

“Multicultural populations, including migrants and overseas tourists, have been identified as a priority for reducing drownings in Australia due to Australia’s changing demographics which is now being reflected in drowning statistics,” the ANZJPH study says.

“It is thought that some migrants come to Australia with limited experience and understanding of water and water safety in the Australian context.”

Survey results

Over the decade-long study period, there were 2,686 drowning deaths in Australia and of these, 28.9% were born overseas.

Males accounted for 82.9% of migrant drowning deaths and the highest proportion of drowning deaths was of people aged 25-34 years (21%).

Overall, the highest proportion of migrant deaths occurred in NSW (40.8%), followed by Queensland (20.4%) and WA (16%).

Most migrants (72.6%) drowned in their home state/territory, within 100km of their home. Drowning deaths most frequently occurred in summer (42.5%) and on a Sunday (21.9%). Almost half (49%) occurred in the afternoon.

Migrant adults (over 18 years) most frequently drowned in rivers (21.9%) or beaches (21.7%). Swimming was the most common activity being undertaken immediately prior to drowning (28.7%).

More than one quarter (27.1%) of adults recorded alcohol present, the majority (60%) recording blood alcohol level above .05%, and drugs were recorded in 31.8% of migrant drowning deaths, of which 23.3% were known to be illicit drugs.

Swimming ability was only recorded in 18% of cases, of which more than half (55.7%) were thought to be poor or non-swimmers. A pre-existing medical condition was recorded in 40.1% of cases, most commonly cardiac conditions.

Analysis of drowning by country

Migrants from the UK (13.2%), China (10.4%), New Zealand (8.1%), India (5.1%) and South Korea (4.8%) recorded the highest number of drowning deaths.

Countries of migrant origin that recorded the highest drowning rates by residential population in Australia were South Korea (2.63 per 100,000 population), Taiwan (2.29 per 100,000), and Nepal (2.15 per 100,000), all of whom don’t have English as an official language.

Migrant adults were significantly more likely to drown from rocks than Australia-born adults, who were most likely to drown in rivers.

Migrants were significantly more likely to be swimming and rock fishing compared with Australia-born residents, who were more likely to drown while boating or driving.

People born in China accounted for the highest proportion of migrants who drowned after falling or being swept off rocks (26.0%) and in swimming pools (17.4%). People born in India accounted for the highest proportion of migrants who drowned at beaches (13.3%).

People from New Zealand and the UK accounted for the leading groups of migrants who drowned in rivers (11.1% and 5.4%), lakes/dams (10% each) and ocean/harbour locations (11.9% and 22%).

Swimming was the leading activity prior to drowning for all groups, except for residents who had been in Australia between 16 and 20 years, who most commonly drowned after falling or being swept off rocks (53.8%).


Drowning is a public health issue globally and in Australia that has significant consequences on families, communities, and society. The economic cost of a single fatal drowning in Australia has been estimated at $4.25 million and, for a non-fatal incident, $400,000.

This study shows a need for drowning prevention agencies to pay attention to migration patterns; for example, the Nepalese population has experienced rapid growth over the past decade, which is now being reflected in drowning statistics.

“These findings emphasise that prevention strategies need to be tailored for different types of migrant populations and should consider the determinants of health,” the study said.

“Cross-sectoral collaboration is required to understand the cultural nuances and differences between migrant groups, such as language, cultural background, education, and skill level, to effectively reduce drowning rates among migrant communities.

“Drowning prevention strategies should be made available to both new arrivals and long-term residents to ensure people live happy and healthy lives in Australia.”

The ANZJPH study: ‘Epidemiology of unintentional fatal drowning among migrants in Australia’ was a collaboration between Stacey Willcox-Pidgeon, Richard Franklin, Peter Leggat and Susan Devine.

Image: Royal Life Saving Australia


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