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Drowning is a significant public health issue globally. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 2.5 million people have lost their lives to drowning over the past 10 years worldwide. The highest burden is among children and those living among low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs), and men.


The World Health Organization (WHO) defines drowning as: “the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in a liquid”. Drowning includes both fatal and non-fatal outcomes, with or without injury.


While rates are highest in LMICs, drowning is the second leading cause of death in children aged 1–4 years in High-income countries (HICs) like Australia and New Zealand, as well as in France, Switzerland, and the USA. Drowning is the sixth leading cause of death for children and young adults aged between 1 and 24 years for all HICs combined.

Key risk factors for drowning among young children include lack of adult supervision and exposure to water hazards such as swimming pools, baths, and buckets in the home environment, and natural water bodies like dams, ponds, and lakes. Risk factors for school-aged children include the absence of swimming, water safety and survival skills, and for adults, alcohol and lack of wearing a lifejacket when using watercraft are contributing factors for drowning.

The WHO recommended strategies for reducing drowning include the provision of daycare for preschool children (under 6 years), barriers to access to water, provision of basic swimming skills and water safety training, training bystanders in safe rescue and resuscitation methods, building flood resilience measures and managing flood risks, and setting and enforcing regulations for safe shipping and boating.

The United Nations (UN) approved the first-ever resolution on global drowning prevention by the UN General Assembly on April 28, 2021, and the inaugural World Drowning Prevention Day, to be held annually on 25th July 5.  

Males in Lifejackets RLSSA.jpg

Image used with permission from Royal Life Saving

Australian Drowning Statistics

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Image used with permission from Royal Life Saving

On average: 

  • 273 unintentional drowning fatalities occur each year in Australia

  • This equals to a rate of 1.16 per 100,00 population

  • For every one drowning death, three people are hospitalised due to non-fatal drowning

  • 80% are male and drown at a rate 4 times that of females

  • 22 children under the age of 5 drown each year

  • 33 young people aged 15-24 years drown each year

  • 60 people aged 65 years and older drown each year

  • 25% occur in rivers/creeks and are the leading location for drowning

  • 8 drowning death each year are due to flooding

  • 5% are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

  • The annual cost of unintentional drowning fatalities is estimated at $1.24 billion


*averages (2010/11 to 2019/20) as reported in the Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report 2021

Aotearoa New Zealand Drowning Statistics

On average:

  • 78 unintentional drowning fatalities occur each year in New Zealand

  • This equals to a rate of 1.54 per 100,000 people

  • 196 water-related hospitalisations occur every year

  • This equals to a hospitalisation rate of 3.85 per 100,000 people in New Zealand

  • The leading age groups for drowning are young people aged 15-24 years and people aged 65 years and older (13 each)

  • 37 children under 5 years old are hospitalised each year

  • 28% occur at beaches, the leading location for fatal drowning

  • 22% of total drowning are among Māori (17 each year)

  • The Accident Compensation Corporation spends around $72 million on water-related injuries each year

*Based on 5-year averages (2016 to 2020) received from DrownBase, Water Safety New Zealand’s integrated drowning database as at 30 June 2021.

child supervision RLSSA.jpg

Image used with permission from Royal Life Saving


Australian Water Safety Strategy

The Australian Water Safety Strategy (AWSS) plays an essential role in National, State and Territory, and community approaches to preventing drowning and promoting safe use of the nation’s waterways and swimming pools. It outlines priority areas where Australia’s peak water safety bodies Royal Life Saving and Surf Life Saving, and AWSC Members can work together to prevent drowning on beaches, at rivers and lakes, and in swimming pools across Australia.

Five priority areas have been identified, each with three focus areas to target drowning prevention initiatives:

  1. People

  2. Places

  3. Activities

  4. Populations

  5. Risk Factors

New Zealand Water Safety Sector Strategy 2025 – Wai Ora Aotearoa

The Strategy outlines the New Zealand water safety sector’s collective approach to ensure everyone connects to and enjoys the water safely. The sector has developed aspirational goals, determined measurable targets, and agreed an action plan to achieve the sector outcomes. 

This strategy is underpinned by the Wai Puna model of Dr Chanel Phillips (Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi) from the University of Otago. This model also underpins the outlook of this strategy. The three pillars of Wai Puna encapsulates the importance of strengthening connection to water through Whakapapa: Attitudes & Beliefs, Mātauranga: Knowledge and Tikanga: Behaviour.

The aims of this strategy are to increase people’s water safety competencies and increase their risk awareness to result in safety behaviour in, on and around the water.

The desired trends over the next five years are to see:

  • An increased understanding among New Zealanders of risky behaviour associated with fatal and non-fatal drowning over time

  • An improvement in water safety competencies among New Zealanders to enable people to survive in, on and around the water

There are five strategic areas of focus:

  1. Education and training

  2. Data, research and insights

  3. Communication, collaboration and partnerships

  4. Leadership, advocacy and influence

  5. Frontline prevention, search & rescue

For more information

Jumping from Swing

Read our latest position papers for drowning injury:

NOTE: This information is correct as of 17 October 2021 and was reviewed and approved by Royal Life Saving Australia and Water Safety New Zealand. Note that statistics change year to year, please check the relevant websites listed for current information.



World Health Organization. Global Health Estimates: Life expectancy and leading causes of death and disability Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 2019. Available from:

World Health Organization. Global Report on Drowning: Preventing a Leading Killer. Geneva: World Health Organisation, 2014. Available from:

Meddings DR, Scarr J-P, Larson K, et al. Drowning prevention: turning the tide on a leading killer. The Lancet Public Health 2021 doi: 10.1016/S2468-2667(21)00165-1

World Health Organization. Preventing drowning: an implementation guide. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2017. Available from:

United Nations General Assembly. 2021. Resolution on Drowning adopted by the General Assembly 29 April 2021. New York. Available from:

Royal Life Saving Society -  Australia. National Drowning Report 2021. Sydney, Australia: Royal Life Saving Society - Australia.

Australian Water Safety Council. Australian Water Safety Strategy 2030. Sydney: Australian Water Safety Council, 2021.

Barnsley PD, Peden AE, Scarr J. Calculating the economic burden of fatal drowning in Australia. Journal of Safety Research 2018;67:57-63. doi:

Water Safety New Zealand. DrownBase 2021. Wellington, New Zealand: Water Safety New Zealand.

Accident Compensation Corporation. Splashing for Fun? Or for Your Life? Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Government 2021. Available from:


Water Safety New Zealand. New Zealand Water Safety Sector Strategy, 2025. Wellington, New Zealand: Water Safety New Zealand, 2021. Available from:

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