NZ drownings lead to water safety rethink

·3-min read

After a spate of drowning deaths this summer, New Zealand has been urged to consider life guards at popular river swimming spots.

This summer, 31 people have drowned in New Zealand's waterways: overtaking last year's toll of 25 with over half of this summer remaining.

"It's been such a tragic summer. It's just been horrendous," Water Safety NZ chief executive Daniel Gerrard told AAP.

The surge in water-related deaths means during the pandemic, more than three times as many Kiwis have died drowning as have died with COVID-19.

Deaths have occurred among different age groups, genders, in good weather and in bad, and among the water-experienced and those less so.

Just last week, police reported almost a dozen deaths, including swimmers at Karioitahi Beach, southwest of Auckland and at the glamour Mt Maunganui beach, at sea off the Coromandel Peninsula and North Canterbury, and in a scuba diving accident north of Auckland.

"We've had every demographic, every age group, doing every activity in every environment. It really has been just a crazy, crazy period," Mr Gerrard said.

"In six to 14-year-olds, which will usually see two drownings a year, well we've had four of them already. So what's going on?"

Mr Gerrard believes a focus on inland waterways is needed, given more than a third of this summer's drownings have occurred in rivers, including the Manawatu, Waingaro and Waikato.

"When we do have big floods that come through, that can make swimming holes really dangerous," he said.

"Surf lifeguards are working beaches and that's their skill set. We need to investigate having lifeguards in other areas if it would help.

"This summer has highlighted these are environments that are really popular ... if we're going to have 100, 150 people swimming in a river, then maybe it does warrant a lifeguard."

Mr Gerrard said informative workers were already playing roles at two of New Zealand's most dangerous swimming spots.

"Out at Napier, the Marine Parade, the tourist showpiece, it's just a beautiful bit a water but really, really tragic. So this year, they decided to actually post a couple of lifeguards to warn people," he said.

"And in Hunua Falls, tragedies there very very often.

"We are now working with Auckland Council and Drowning Prevention Auckland to post - not quite lifeguards - but people there to warn people up the dangers of the waterfall."

Given the surge in deaths, Mr Gerrard said his organisation would be working overtime to get to the root causes.

"This holiday period, there were 17 road deaths and there were 14 drownings," he said.

"There's billions that goes into road safety. We just need a drop in the bucket of that.

"But also maybe we actually have a good hard look at the messages we're sending. Is it a broken record? Do we need to revamp?

"We obviously will do a deep, deep dive around analysing this."

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