Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are over-represented in drowning data. Royal Life Saving research shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 1.7 times more likely to drown than the rest of the Australian population.
The research, published in Royal Life Saving's report 'Drowning deaths among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. A 10-year analysis 2008/09 to 2017/18', shows that these communities accounted for 5.5% of total drowning deaths in Australia during the study period, despite making up only 3.3% of the Australian population.
However, the study shows there has been considerable progress in reducing the number of drowning deaths among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, with drowning rates falling by 46.8% between 2008 and 2018.
What the data tells us
Between 2008 and 2018, 152 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people drowned, 75% of which were male. The highest risk groups were found to be children aged 0 to 4 years and those aged 45 to 54 years. Aboriginal children are 2.9 times more likely than non-Aboriginal children to drown, and Aboriginal adults aged 45 to 54 years are 3.5 times more likely to drown than non-Aboriginal people of the same age.
However, rates of non-fatal drowning were found to be similar across both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, with Aboriginal children recording 3.7 hospital admissions recorded per 100,000 compared with 3.5 admissions per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal children.
Most drowning deaths occurred in summer (42%), on a weekday (69%) and in the afternoon (44%).
Drowning deaths mostly occurred in locations classified as very remote (31.6%), outer regional locations (29.6%) and remote (8.5%). In contrast, drowning deaths among non-Aboriginal Australians were more likely to occur in major cities (39.6% versus16.4%) and inner regional locations (27.6% versus 13.2%).
Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander drowning deaths also occurred locally to where people lived (86%), often in the same postcode.
Over half of all drowning deaths among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people occurred in inland waterways. Rivers and creeks were found to be the leading location for drowning for all age groups except for children aged 0 to 4 years who were more likely to drown in a swimming pool. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were more likely to drown at inland waterway locations and less likely to drown at coastal locations than non-Aboriginal people.
Three quarters of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander drowning deaths occurred in Queensland (28%), Northern Territory (26%) and New South Wales (21%), with Western Australia accounting for 14% of drowning deaths.
The leading activities being undertaken prior to drowning were swimming and recreating, and falls, consistent with non-Aboriginal drowning deaths. Swimming and recreating was the leading activity for every age group except children aged 0 to 4 years who usually fell into water and for people aged 55 years and over whose deaths were attributed to non-aquatic transport – that is, driving into floodwaters.
A similar proportion of drowning deaths occurred when the person intentionally entered the water (eg, swimming, jumping, diving, bathing), compared with those that occurred when the person did not intend to be in the water (eg, fall, non-aquatic transport) (44.1% versus 42.8%).
Most children who drowned were not being supervised by an adult at the time of drowning. Some children were being indirectly supervised where parents/carers were in the vicinity of the child but were not within sight of the child.
45% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander drowning deaths (aged 15+ years) involved alcohol. Overall, 32% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults who drowned recorded a BAC ≥ 0.05%, compared with 24% of non-Aboriginal adults.
Alcohol not only affects balance, coordination and judgement, but can increase risk of child injury such as impacting on supervision and the ability to help in an emergency.
28% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander drowning deaths recorded drugs present. Of people aged 15 years and over that recorded drugs present, 61% recorded illegal drugs. Overall, 20% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults who drowned had consumed illegal drugs prior to drowning
Pre-existing medical conditions
36% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander drowning deaths recorded a pre-existing medical condition. 96% of these were among adults. Medical conditions included cardiac conditions, diabetes and epilepsy.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have been reported to have lower levels of swimming and water safety skills compared with non-Aboriginal children and are less likely to achieve the ‘benchmark’ skills outlined in the National Swimming and Water Safety Framework.
Swimming ability was recorded for 19% of drowning deaths Of these, 34% were thought to be competent/good swimmers, 17% were thought to be poor swimmers The remaining were all were aged 0 to 4 years and non-swimmers.
How to stay safe
- Supervise all children around water. They should by actively supervised by an adult. Supervision should not be delegated to older children.
- Create child-safe play areas in rural and remote locations that have access to inland waterways.
- Enrol children in swimming and water safety programs to improve swimming ability.
- Do not drink alcohol or take drugs when in and around aquatic environments.
- Be aware of environmental factors specific to inland waterways, such as depth of water, sudden drop-offs, cold water, currents, submerged objects, and water visibility, which all increase the risk of drowning.
- Be aware of medical conditions on a person’s ability to participate in aquatic activities safely.
Policy and advocacy
Despite the decreasing trend in drowning deaths, it is clear that more needs to be done to reduce the impacts of drowning among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Reducing drowning among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities has been a priority area in the Australian Water Safety Strategy since its inception in 1998.
Water safety and drowning prevention programs provide opportunities to build on and contribute to broader health and address social disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Future drowning prevention and water safety strategies need to be developed and implemented in partnership with community-based organisations to ensure effective and marked progress in the next 10 years.
Royal Life Saving is therefore committed to:
- Developing and enhancing existing policies that increase access to, and include, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in swimming and water safety education programs
- Developing policies and promote pathways for training, employment and leadership roles within the aquatic industry and beyond to reflect the local community and increase community participation
- Developing culturally appropriate strategies and programs with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
- Aligning drowning prevention strategies with other strategies and policy documents to support a holistic approach to enhance Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and wellbeing (eg, Closing the Gap objectives, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advancement Strategy)
- Developing an organisational Reconciliation Action Plan for engaging and working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities