In 2019, drowning claimed the lives of an estimated 70,000 to 74,000 people in South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions, according to the first World Health Organisation regional assessments on drowning prevention released today ahead of World Drowning Prevention Day. World Drowning Prevention Day will be observed for the first time on July 25 following the adoption of the first-ever United Nations General Assembly resolution on global drowning prevention on April 28.

The two WHO reports, 'Regional Status Report on Drowning in the Western Pacific' and 'Regional Status Report on Drowning in South-East Asia', also warn that climate change places already vulnerable communities and individuals at increased risk of drowning. More frequent and extreme weather events can lead to more regular and intense floods, thereby increasing populations' exposure to potentially hazardous interactions with water.

There are large disparities in the drowning rates across the countries of the South-East Asia Region, which include 11 countries. In 2019, Timor-Leste had the highest drowning death rate at 5.8 per 10,000 population, followed by Thailand at 5.5, Nepal at 5.4, Bangladesh at 4.6, Myanmar at 4.2, India at 3.8, Sri Lanka and Maldives at 3.2 each, Bhutan at 2.1 and Indonesia at 1.8. The drowning rate of Democratic People's Republic of Korea has not been mentioned in the report.

Non-fatal drowning – where individuals are rescued and/or resuscitated – also results in a substantial number of hospitalisations in the two WHO regions and can cause severe brain damage that may result in long-term disabilities such as memory problems, learning disabilities and permanent loss of basic function, warned the reports.

"Despite the loss of many lives every year, drowning remains a largely unrecognised threat to people's health and well-being," said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO regional director for South-East Asia.

"We need to work across all the sectors to develop national water safety plans and policies and implement tested and lowcost water safety interventions to prevent drowning and save lives. No child or adult should lose their life to drowning."

The new reports provide the countries with WHO-recommended best practices on drowning prevention interventions and policies, including day care for children, the use of barriers for controlling access to water, public awareness campaigns focused on change in behavioural patterns, and policies and legislation on water safety, including the regulation of recreational boating and maritime transport. Of the 70,000 drowning deaths in the WHO South-East Asia Region in 2019, more than 33 per cent included children aged below 15 years. On average, men are three to four times more likely to drown than women.

Among the 10 out of 11 countries, including Nepal, in the South-East Asia Region that contributed to the report, four reported having national or sub-national strategies, policies or plans to mitigate drowning. Efforts, especially for risky groups such as children, include survival swim and water skills training in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, community-based day care/creches for young children in Bangladesh, India and Thailand and improved information systems and public awareness campaigns focused on behavioural change in Thailand.

On average, men are three to four times more likely to drown than women

A version of this article appears in the print on July 23 2021, of The Himalayan Times.