Earlier this week two tourists were rescued from the Huka Falls. They had been swept into a narrow channel only a few tens of metres wide through which hurtles the Waikato River. Just metres from a 15 metre plunge into a seething pool, they were rescued by astonished police, wanting to know what they were – or more likely were not – thinking.
New Zealand has some alarmingly high drowning statistics for a country surrounded by water. And some of the drowning have happened in places where people should not be in the first place, such as irrigation and power station intakes, spill ways, diversion and water races. These places where hidden obstructions, strong under currents, sudden rises and falls in water levels depending on demand may exist are generally well marked.
So, this idea that more signage and other warnings are needed is needed is silly. It is people trying to deflect the fact that they do not know water safety that we should address. This has been shown clearly by instances around water control structures in both the North and South Islands. Two examples at Aratiatia Dam particularly stand out. The dam, whose spill way consists of an over flow channel and a control gate block that opens twice daily for about 30 minutes discharges into a steep rocky channel that creates spectacular rapids. Warning signage, sirens and lights warn people 5 minutes, 2 minutes and immediately prior to the gates opening. But despite all of this, multiple people have died or have had to be rescued for being in the channel.
It is also true that New Zealand has too many drownings at beaches. Many have been where people have got themselves into situations beyond their skill, but also where some have ignored warnings from lifeguards to stay out the sea at beaches that gave been closed. Others have been caught in rips and have tried to swim against the current, thus tiring themselves unnecessarily.
And finally, there are our rivers, particularly in the instance of Canterbury and West Coast Rivers, where avoidable, but also tragic drownings have happened. Some have been cases of not understanding that the heavy rain in the mountains will cause alpine rivers to flood within a matter of hours. On multiple occasions sudden water level changes have caught people out. In one instance a near new rental car hired by foreign tourists was swept away by a rapidly rising Rakaia River. The hirers had ignored warnings from locals that a flood was coming and were shocked when the dry river bed turned into a filthy raging torrent. In another, locals drove onto the Waimakariri River bed and were caught when the river flooded in response to a day of heavy rain.
But perhaps the most tragic was the case of some young men from Afghanistan who had no concept of water safety. They had gone to the Waimakariri River just north of Christchurch on a hot January day to cool off, and seeing some locals in the river, thought they could wade in. Before long one was in trouble having suddenly realised the channel was deeper than him.
New Zealand can do better than this, and we must. We need to reintroduce compulsory swim week, which was something that happened at my primary school in the second or third week of each year. But we also need to talk about water environments that do not involve beaches. When that happens, maybe the death toll will improve.