Water safety in New Zealand not so water tight

When I was at primary school we had what was known as swim week. It would occur in February in the first or second week of school, just after we had returned from summer holidays. The aim of swim week was an all out drive where the whole school learnt to swim, about water safety and some basic first aid such as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Sometime after I left it seems to have stopped. Or maybe I just did not notice, as once I left Cobham Intermediate swimming lessons were not so much of a priority for my family.

Whatever the case, it is certainly something that should be happening in New Zealand schools near the start of each year. We are a nation surrounded by water. We are a nation with lovely beaches, great rivers and lakes to swim in (fresh water quality is a separate issue). And swim in them we do. And ignore the official warnings, and natural warning signs we do too.

Anyone who has watched Piha Rescue when it was on television (to this day I have no idea why it was cancelled, for it did a huge public service by helping to keep the focus on water safety at beaches), will have seen how quickly someone can get into danger. Anyone who has read a newspaper in the last few weeks will have noticed cases of drownings and near drownings. Some of these were simply avoidable, if people had been following lifeguard instructions and stayed within the flags; not gone into flat areas of water between waves where rips have formed.

Tragically in the last couple of years a new dimension to water safety in New Zealand has emerged. In 2017 there were two incidents in fresh water environments where the danger was well advertised by signage, lighting and sirens. They happened below the Aratiatia Dam on the Waikato River. Anyone familiar with this dam will know that every few hours during daylight the spillway control gates open to let water down a rugged rocky channel to form spectacular rapids. Prior to the gates opening a siren sounds three times, warning lights on the dam flash. There are also permanent signs warning about the danger. The water volume per second goes from 0m³ to 90m³ in just a few minutes. Tragically it has not stopped several lives being lost over the years and several more nearly being lost. With numerous other hydroelectric power stations around New Zealand, some with submerged intakes and other structures that take or discharge water, perhaps this needs to be a part of water safety campaigns in New Zealand too.

It is not just dams though. A tragic case occurred in Canterbury several years ago. Afghan refugees going for a swim in the Waimakariri River had observed others going into the river and decided to go in themselves. Unfortunately, not being from a country where water safety would have been a priority, none knew how to swim and at least one drowned.

98 people died from drowning in 2012, 90 in 2014 and 113 in 2015. This year in 2018, there has already been one death.

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