As the world watches the devastation wrought by the tsunami in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga, and tropical storm Ketsana in the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia, there is an overwhelming sense that the loss of life is somehow inevitable. There is an unquestioned acceptance that this is just what happens when wild weather strikes our not-so-distant and poorer neighbours.
But this loss of life is far from inevitable. As more horrific stories emerge of people being swept away by floodwaters, it’s a source of frustration for many of us in lifesaving that there are very few large-scale survival swimming or lifesaving programs running in Asia and the Pacific, where these skills could literally be saving lives in emergencies and in everyday life.
The interview from well-known Philippines actress Christine Reyes begging for help because her mother doesn’t know how to swim represents a problem of epidemic proportions in many parts of Asia and the Pacific.
Unlike developed countries such as Australia, where swimming and water safety are considered an essential part of public health and are widely publicised, most communities even in coastal areas have never had the opportunity to learn basic survival swimming skills, let alone CPR or first aid.
With millions in the Philippines experiencing about 20 typhoons a year, and Vietnam being similarly affected by tropical storms and typhoons, water safety should be an essential life skill. In the Philippines, tropical storm Ketsana is reported to have dumped a month’s worth of rain in 12 hours.
While in a tsunami you are at heightened risk of being struck by houses, cars and debris swept alongside you in the water, there are also many instances where people almost made it to safety: simple floating skills and basic swimming strokes might have allowed them to survive the onslaught.
The Alliance for Safe Children is soon to publish a study centered on the tsunami in Aceh, which will give us a clearer picture of survival during catastrophic aquatic events such as tsunamis. Initial findings strongly support the accepted wisdom that women and children are the most at risk of drowning in disaster scenarios and therefore would benefit most from large scale survival swimming.
In Australia, we’ve had 115 years worth of public health and community education campaigns drilling into our community the need to learn to swim and to practise water-safety skills. While it’s certainly not a perfect system, we are leaps and bounds ahead of our neighbours.
Survival swimming wouldn’t just save lives in a disaster. It’s the rice paddies that surround houses in rural areas, or the open drains that track through city slums, the rivers and waterholes that draw dusty children after school that claim the most lives in Asia.
More than 350,000 children are estimated to drown across Asia every year. In Bangladesh, 17,000 children drown every year; that is 46 children drown every day.
Most adults reading this will remember doing Royal Life Saving courses at school, diving under make-believe boats in dad’s pajamas to simulate an emergency and learning basic first aid. As Australians who have been given a head start in the world of water safety, we have a humanitarian obligation to share those skills and the knowledge we’ve accumulated over the past 115 years.
Justin Scarr is the chief operating officer of the Royal Life Saving Society — Australia and has been personally involved in the development of survival swimming programs that are now being implemented in parts of Bangladesh, Thailand and Vietnam.