Lifestyle – Home swimming pools pose highest risk of drowning for kids

New Zealand has a high fatal drowning rate compared to other Western nations such as Australia, Canada and the UK.

Research conducted by Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) and published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health (Quantifying fatal and non-fatal drowning in children under five in Aotearoa, New Zealand) underlines the need for closer supervision of children under five to prevent infant drowning.

WSNZ has collaborated with leading Australian researcher, Dr Amy Peden from the University of New South Wales, to quantify fatal and non-fatal drowning in children under five in Aotearoa New Zealand (NZ).

The research analysed fatal and non-fatal (hospitalisations and ACC claims) drowning of children aged 0-4 years, between 2005 and 2019.

Across that period (2005-2019), there were 557 drowning incidents, of which 89 were fatal, and 468 required hospitalisation. Boys accounted for almost 63 per cent of drowning deaths, and one-year-olds were 4.5 times more likely to drown than four-year-olds.

Home swimming pools, including portable pools, pose the greatest risk of fatal drowning among children under five, followed by inland still waters (ponds) and domestic locations.

For fatal drownings, when compared to beaches, children 0-4 years of age were 15 times more likely to drown in a home pool, 11 times more likely to drown in inland still waters and nine times more likely to drown in domestic environments. For non-fatal drowning-related hospitalisations, domestic locations posed the highest risk, followed by public pools and home pools.

While drowning fatalities declined over the period, drowning related hospitalisations increased. Of concern, a recent comparison study (Can child drowning be eradicated? A compelling case for continued investment in prevention) identified higher fatal drowning rates in NZ than in Australia or Canada for both adults and children and adolescents.

Water Safety New Zealand’s Chief Executive, Daniel Gerrard, says: “Too many children lose their lives from drowning or require hospitalisation due to a non-fatal drowning, with drowning being the leading cause of injury-related death for children under five years of age. Yet, drowning is preventable.

“The Building (Pools) Amendment Act 2016 requires all residential pools including portable pools to be fenced to prevent access by unsupervised children. Despite this requirement, there has been push-back from residential pool owners, and some councils have issued waivers to owners with pool covers, particularly in Marlborough.

“However, pool covers don’t provide an effective barrier, as evidenced by least five drowning deaths among children under five in pools and spas that were required to have safety covers fitted and several hospitalisations stemming from incidents in pools with removed covers.

“The research highlights the need for adequate safety fencing around pools and the importance of constant supervision of children as drownings can happen in seconds,” Gerrard said.

Study author Dr Amy Peden says, “Research such as this is vital to understanding the full burden of drowning. Too often people think drowning is always fatal. As a result, the children and families who experience non-fatal drowning, and live with the ongoing impacts of these incidents, are forgotten. It is our sincere hope, in conducting this research, that we can ensure no other family loses a child to drowning.”

Useful links

WSNZ Drowning Statistics:

Under 5 – Water Safety for Little People:

About Water Safety New Zealand

New Zealand has a high fatal drowning rate compared to other Western nations such as Australia, Canada and the UK. For the past ten years our rate has been 1.7 per 100,000 of population and in 2020 is 1.62. In comparison, Australia’s per capita rate is 1.1 and Canada’s 1.3. Each fatality comes with a human and financial cost. It’s a life cut-short – often a young life – and it leaves families and communities devastated.

Our drowning toll is something every New Zealander should see as a national disgrace and one we all have a responsibility to address.

Through our leadership, advocacy and education, Water Safety New Zealand works with water safety sector organisations, individuals and the public to reduce the incidence of drowning and injury in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Our work contributes to the reduction in drownings and to a thriving society for individuals, families and communities.

Water Safety New Zealand is an association of members in the water safety sector with an elected board and recruited management and administration team. It is an incorporated society, with charitable status.

Its operating budget is funded by Sport New Zealand and ACC, while Lotteries Grants funding, via Sport New Zealand, funds water safety providers through the Water Safety New Zealand annual investment round. Funding from corporates, trusts and foundations also supports community initiatives and programmes.
Donations made to Water Safety New Zealand receive tax credits and our Charities Services registration number is CC33799.

About Dr Amy Peden

Dr Amy Peden is a researcher and lecturer in Injury Prevention, Epidemiology and Control within the University of New South Wales School of Population Health.

Her research on drowning prevention primarily focuses on regional and remote communities, rivers, alcohol and social determinants of health. Prior to commencing with UNSW, she worked in the NGO sector as national manager of research and policy with Royal Life Saving Society – Australia. Dr Peden’s regularly advocates for injury and drowning prevention in the media as well as within her role on the Australasian Injury Prevention Network Executive Committee.