The Royal Life Saving Report - Analysis of unintentional drowning in Australia 2002-2022: progress, challenges, and data to inform prevention, provides two decades of data for fatal drowning incidents in Australia.
Each number in this report represents a life lost and countless other lives forever affected by tragedy.
To this end, the data presented here is intended to inform action that prevents future fatal and non-fatal drowning. By understanding and highlighting the details and long-term trends of these events, we can better design and implement national, regional and community responses that address the burden of drowning in Australia.
The Australian Water Safety Strategy 2030 set the aspirational goal of reducing drowning by 50 per cent by 2030. This twenty-year review provides an opportunity to evaluate both gains that have been made with decreasing rates of drowning, and areas of concern where the situation is either not improving or has worsened.
In May 2023, the World Health Assembly adopted their first drowning resolution “Accelerating action on global drowning prevention” which requests governments to assess their national drowning situation. This report, in part, represents an answer to that call. In Australia we are fortunate to have robust, long-term data to inform policy responses and assess the impact of our action.
The Report provides a detailed understanding of who is drowning in Australia, and how, when and where they are drowning. The report analyses drowning data for the period 2002/03 to 2021/22, triangulated from data extracted from the National Coronial Information System, media reports, police reports and Royal Life Saving’s state and territory member organisations.
One feature is the presentation of data in five-year intervals (2002/03 - 2006/07) to measure and report changing patterns and assess whether progress is being made.
While anyone can drown, no one should.
Tragically, 5,692 people died from drowning in Australia across the 20-year period, 2002/03-2021/22.
Their deaths are a tragedy which rippled through entire communities. In recording the circumstances of their deaths, Royal Life Saving Society – Australia aims to prevent future drowning, both fatal and non-fatal.
Reduction in drowning deaths
This report captures an overall decline in drowning numbers of six per cent during the twenty-year period.
While this is an important achievement, it is well short of successive goals contained within the Australian Water Safety Strategy.
In public health circles, planning and measuring impact is best done by considering the drowning rate.
Drowning rates give a general measure of the burden of drowning in the Australian population, and is represented by the number of drowning deaths each year per 100,000 population. In this respect the average drowning rate has dropped by 26 per cent from 1.45 to 1.08 per 100,000 population.
All states and territories recorded a reduction in the fatal drowning rate of at least 20 per cent over the twenty-year period. The greatest reduction was recorded in South Australia, with a 37 per cent decrease in the rate.
By far the greatest improvement was in the 0 to four year-old age group: the count of drowning deaths reduced by 51% over the period, and the rate of fatal drowning reduced by 59% over the period. While this improvement is something to celebrate, any number of drowning deaths is still unacceptable and should motivate further action.
Progress is credited to the introduction of pool fencing legislation across Australia1, community awareness focusing on supervision, and increasing participation in water familiarisation programs by young children.2,3
The drowning rate continues to be lowest in children 5-14 years. Reductions of 46% (5-9 years) and 28% (10-14 years) reinforce the importance of swimming and water safety education. More recent increases in drowning deaths in these age groups are a cause for concern.
Progress is less pronounced, but still impressive across most adults age groups ranging from reduction of 20% (35-44 years) to 34% (45-54 years). While rates are decreasing across all ages, there is much debate about how to accelerate progress.
The proportion of flood related drownings has doubled from three to six per cent of all drowning deaths in the past 20 years. With the increases in severe weather events, more needs to be done to protect vulnerable individuals and communities from drowning during flooding. Community education, particularly around driving through flood waters, and improved early warning systems will be critical to
reduce drowning deaths.
Drowning in older age groups is of particular concern. Reflecting the aging Australian population, the drowning rate among 65 to 74 years decreased by 7%, however the number of drowning deaths increased by 58%.
This growth in the number of fatal drowning incidents represents an emerging challenge for drowning prevention. These results reinforce the need for more prioritised interventions, and commitment to greater funding of awareness campaigns, particularly around the risks posed by swimming while using some pharmaceutical medications and swimming alone, or in unsupervised areas.
Perhaps of most concern is the projected rise in nonfatal drowning incidents, up by 32%. While first aid and CPR can be effective in drowning incidents, the best prevention of impairment, significant disability or death is prevention of a drowning incident in the first instance.
- Mahony A, Pidgeon S (2023) Review of pool fencing legislation in Australia. Royal Life Saving Society –Australia. Sydney
- Royal Life Saving Society - Australia. Be Pool Safe -Changes to Pool Fencing Legislation 2017
- Royal Life Saving Society - Australia. National Swimming and Water Safety Education Symposium - Summary Report, 2017.