Dark water: Australia’s rivers have claimed more than 1000 lives in 15 years

Royal Life Saving Society Australia research shows Australia's rivers account for more drowning deaths than any other waterway.
Royal Life Saving Society Australia research shows Australia's rivers account for more drowning deaths than any other waterway.

More than 1000 people have drowned in Australian rivers over the past 15 years, new research reveals.

While attention begins turning to beaches as the weather heats up, Royal Life Saving Society Australia’s latest report into drownings shows 1113 people have lost their lives in the country’s rivers, creeks and streams since July 1, 2002.

The latest Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report, released on Thursday, October 5, shows that, in the past year alone, 68 people died in rivers around the country, making them the leading location for drowning.

Overall, 291 people drowned in Australia, including in swimming pools, lakes, beaches and baths. There were also an estimated 685 incidents requiring hospitalisation in the 12 months to July 2017.

According to the report, men are at most risk, drowning at a rate four times that of women – accounting for 74 per cent of all drowning deaths and 81 per cent of deaths in rivers. Alarmingly, of the men who drowned, more than half (51 per cent) had a contributory level of drugs or alcohol in their system.

In New South Wales, 402 people have drowned in rivers, creeks and streams between July 1, 2002, and June 30, 2016.

Of those,  77 per cent were male. The leading age group was 35 to 44-year-olds accounting for 15 per cent of all river drowning deaths in NSW.

“Men are prone to taking unnecessary risks and over-estimating their abilities, but with the changeable conditions in rivers, this can, and does put their life in danger,” Royal Life Saving Society Australia CEO Justin Scarr said.

“We are asking people to follow four simple steps to reduce their drowning risk in rivers.

“Wear a lifejacket, avoid alcohol and drugs around water, never swim alone and learn how to save a life,” Mr Scarr said.

“It’s simple, respect the river.”

It is often assumed that tourists account for the majority of drowning deaths. However, Royal Life Saving research revealed 74 per cent of people who drowned in the country’s rivers were locals to the area.

“Conditions in rivers can change rapidly. Just because you might regularly visit an area, doesn’t mean the environment will be the same the next time you go,” Mr Scarr said.

“Rivers can be very hazardous environments. Often you cannot see ice cold water, rocks, snags like tree branches or strong currents. It’s vital that people are aware of these hazards and respect the river.”

A joint study undertaken by Royal Life Saving and James Cook University, examined 10 years of fatal river drowning in Australia. The study, published in the PLoSONE journal, identified key at risk groups and behaviours in order to aid prevention efforts.

The study found that males when compared to females were three times as likely to drown in a river due to a boating or watercraft related incident and four times as likely to drown as a result of jumping (commonly from bridges and trees while engaging in risk taking behaviour).

“Australian rivers are beautiful and can be great places to recreate, from boating to swimming to kayaking and even taking in the environment along the river bank,” Mr Scarr said.

“We want everyone to enjoy these beautiful natural environments but to do so safely, by showing rivers the respect they deserve.”

The lack of lifejackets being used in inland waterways is concerning. Of those that drowned when using boats and watercraft, only five per cent were found to be wearing a lifejacket.

Royal Life Saving Society Australia, with the support of the federal government, is rolling out the Respect the River campaign in every state and territory with a range of local educational programs, events and activities supported by a series of national community service announcements and wide ranging social media activities.

Read the full report here.

Bega District News