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The silent epidemic: Drowning is a major cause of child death globally

The silent epidemic: Drowning is a major cause of child death globally

By Helen Morton


I don’t pray. But tonight I did.

I prayed for little seven year old Olivya. I prayed because her mother asked me to “help her get to heaven”.

And now it’s past 1am in Barisal, Bangladesh and I’m struggling to sleep.

Over the past decade working in development, I’ve had the privilege of speaking with families from the Himalayas to the High Andes. But the conversations we had today with parents who have lost their children to the water were more powerful, more disabling and more motivating than I’ve ever experienced.

We know the statistics: 50 children drown each day in Bangladesh. It’s the leading cause of child death in the country. But to sit, knee to knee, eye to eye, with a mother and father, struggling to catch their breath between sobs, as they share the story of the life and preventable death of their child, was incomprehensible.

On February 19th, 2016 Olivya and her mother, father and sister moved from Dhaka to Barisal on the banks of the Kirtankhola river in south-central Bangladesh. Ten days later Olivya was dead. She was found by her mother and auntie as they bathed in the pond 30 seconds walk from their doorstep. She was found when her auntie asked what she could feel underneath her feet in the water.

What she felt was her drowned niece, Olivya.

It’s a horrifying image that is keeping me awake, a moment that her mother and father have no choice but to relive every single day as they bathe, fish, wash their clothes and collect water at the very same pond where their daughter drowned.

Olivya’s parents knew the dangers of the water. They respected the water. Moving from a high-rise apartment in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka to a remote rural home in Delta-dominated Barisal, they immediately set about teaching Olivya the skills to survive. The very day before she drowned her uncle had given her a first swimming lesson in the pond. She never received a second lesson.

Keeping children safe around water can be done with relatively straightforward measures (Credit: Pixabay)
Keeping children safe around water can be done with relatively straightforward measures (Credit: Pixabay)

Here by the pond in the fading light, sitting with Olivya’s family, I am even more determined to open the world’s eyes to the global epidemic of drowning. It’s time to talk about the fact that a year on from launch of the Global Goals, their key child survival target – of ensuring that every baby born in 2030 will live to celebrate their fifth birthday – has zero chance of being achieved without action on drowning.

In many regions of the world, drowning is a leading cause of child death – especially in many Asian countries, with the highest continental drowning rate in Africa. As with most epidemics, drowning affects the poorest and most vulnerable communities first and worst; over 90% of deaths are in developing countries, and children make up the majority of lives lost.

Here in Bangladesh, drownings account for 43% of all children who die aged one to five years old. More children are killed by drowning in Bangladesh than by malnutrition, diarrhoea and pneumonia combined.

Yet no-one’s talking about it.

We have wasted lives and preventable deaths on an epidemic scale. But, as the WHO recognises, drowning is a “silent epidemic”. Not a single political or public initiative exists to dramatically reduce the global drowning death toll.

Although this is no consolation to Olivya’s parents, the good news is that drowning is preventable. Simple, scaleable solutions could save hundreds of thousands of lives every year. Survival swim lessons, lifeguarding, community crèches and flood response can be delivered at large-scale and low-cost. For example, an $8 swim skills course in Bangladesh resulted in a 90% increase in child survival rate.

As part of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s (RNLI) international work to end the global drowning epidemic, we are listening to, learning from and improving the life-chances of Olivya’s family and hundreds of thousands of others across Bangladesh and the world.

We are sharing our 194 years of life-saving skills to improve the impact of local partners, from government ministries to community groups, leading the global effort to end wasted lives and preventable deaths to drowning.

I am more convinced than ever of the opportunity and necessity to champion global drowning prevention. From today, I’ll do so for Olivya.


Helen Morton is the Head of International Advocacy at the RNLI. She has spent the last decade working in international development advocacy, championing causes from infectious disease control to disaster risk reduction and energy access. She led Save The Children’s global engagement with the Post 2015 Development Agenda, and was previously Head of Global Advocacy for INGO Practical Action and Trustee for Basic Needs, a mental health and development charity.


This article and its headline have been fact-checked and amended. The article previously stated that child drowning is a top 5 cause of child death globally, which is incorrect. While drowning is a leading cause of death in many regions of the world, it is not a top 5 cause, according to WHO.

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