From abstinence to education: we need to change the narrative on water safety

Almost every summer heatwave is overshadowed by tragedy, as people trying to cool off in UK waters lose their lives by drowning. As a swimming enthusiast and teacher, I read the news reports and authorities’ responses to these tragedies with sadness, along with frustration, knowing so many of these deaths could have been prevented.  

The pandemic has heightened the problem. In 2020, 254 people died from accidental drowning, an increase on previous years. The heatwave at the end of July this year led to 31 deaths, including three people—a mother, son, and family friend—who drowned on 25 July, the same day as the World Health Organisation’s first World Drowning Prevention Day.

It is undoubtedly good news that drowning prevention is receiving World Health Organisation attention. In the UK, the National Water Safety Forum (NWSF) is working with more than 50 organisations to achieve a “collaborative approach to reduce drowning and water-related harm in the UK”.

A collaborative approach is key to saving lives in the future. However, any new approach to water safety must counter some of the current narratives around water, those which are scaremongering, finger-pointing, and divisive.

Emergency services often promote a message of abstinence in the summer, warning people to ‘stay out’ of open water. Yet, drowning deaths during heatwaves prove this message isn’t working. People will always be drawn to the water, particularly during hot weather. There’s a reason alcohol prohibition and abstinence-only sex education are often ineffectual. Banning people from participating in what feels like a natural and pleasurable activity won’t make it any less attractive, or any safer.

Rather than promoting abstinence, authorities and organisations need to work collaboratively to educate people on swimming in open water safely.

Currently, swimming and water safety are only on the primary school national curriculum. There’s no compulsory water safety education for older children and young people, who are more likely to enter the water. Furthermore, Swim England research shows only half of primary school children achieve the national curriculum standard. Compulsory water safety education needs to be expanded to include older children—and schools need more support to deliver it.   

Considering this need for better water safety education, I feel frustrated by some authorities’ attempts to undermine a key educational resource: the growing community of experienced and knowledgeable wild swimmers. On this year’s World Drowning Prevention Day, United Utilities, who own several UK inland waters, placed the blame for water-related deaths and accidents on “the growing number of open water swimmers and triathletes who are putting their lives in danger.

“They turn up in wetsuits, they’re usually adults and ignore the fact that swimming is prohibited.”

I am an open-water swimmer, and these claims feel misguided. Experienced swimmers don’t often require rescuing. The sad increase in drowning deaths during summer heatwaves indicates those getting into difficulty are people who don’t swim regularly, who jump in without being given the information on how to keep safe. Regular swimmers know to swim with a buddy, how to spot strong currents, how to avoid cold-water shock—they have a wealth of knowledge and experience. What is more, the wild swimming community is one of the most welcoming I’ve encountered: most swimmers would gladly help a beginner or issue advice. Granting swimmers access to inland waters would boost visibility of safe swimming practices and allow experienced swimmers to guide beginners, without fear of being blamed for tragedies.

People will always be drawn to the water. To enjoy it safely, we need an educational approach that strikes a balance between warning of potential dangers and recognising water’s benefits.

Something must change, because the ‘Danger: Keep out’ signs aren’t working.

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Rosa Chrystie-Lowe

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September 2021
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