Australia issues safety alert after drowning 'epidemic'

The Australian authorities have issued safety warnings after a recent spate of drownings which claimed at least 14 lives in less than two weeks.
The Australian authorities have issued safety warnings after a recent spate of drownings which claimed at least 14 lives in less than two weeks.PHOTO: REUTERS

A spate of drownings that has left 14 people dead in less than two weeks has prompted the Australian authorities to issue safety warnings.

The horrific start to the holiday season continued yesterday, with confirmation that a two-year-old girl had died after drowning in the family's home pool in Sydney on New Year's Day. Separately, police divers found the body of a 44-year-old man who had disappeared while swimming on New Year's Day in a lake south-west of Sydney.

The deaths are the latest in a series of recent drownings described by the local media as an epidemic.

Police in New South Wales yesterday warned parents to "be vigilant with your children" and to avoid becoming distracted during social gatherings over the festive season.

"It is very easy to become distracted with lots of people around," said Superintendent Mark Brett.

"Be particularly vigilant when it comes to young children, especially where there is a pool in the area. Don't assume you know where they are. Be sure you know where they are," he said.

Australia is something of a swimming-obsessed nation, particularly in summer.

But this summer's drowning toll - 14 deaths since Christmas Day - is believed to be the highest ever during the busy holiday period. The authorities have suggested this might partly be due to the exceptionally hot weather. The victims included Australians and foreigners and have occurred everywhere from coastal beaches with strong surf and currents to gentle inland rivers and home swimming pools. Among those who drowned were twins aged just 23 months who were pulled unconscious from the family pool in Sydney on Dec 20.

"It certainly has been the highest (death toll) we have seen over the festive season," Surf Life Saving NSW spokesman Liam Howitt told ABC News yesterday.

"Obviously it's the festive season, so people do things like having a drink to celebrate, and that can potentially cause people to make bad decisions around the water."

In separate incidents, two students from Nepal died while swimming during holiday outings.

The authorities have specifically identified foreigners and people from non-Australian backgrounds as a high-risk drowning group. This is because they tend to have poorer swimming skills and are less familiar with local conditions.

According to the Royal Life Saving Society, about 10 per cent of drowning deaths in the country involve foreign nationals.

The federal government's recommendations for keeping safe at the beach include always swimming between the red and yellow flags, which indicate areas patrolled by life guards, and to avoid swimming alone. It says people caught in currents should be careful to stay calm and avoid trying to swim against the flow, but instead swim parallel to the beach or float and raise an arm to signal for help.

The drownings have also prompted calls for people to avoid swimming after drinking alcohol.

Research out last October found that more than 40 per cent of the 770 people who died in inland rivers in Australia between 2002 and 2012 had been drinking alcohol.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2017, with the headline 'Australia issues safety alert after drowning 'epidemic''. Print Edition | Subscribe