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In at the deep end: Reflections on the World Conference on Drowning Prevention 2019

In at the deep end: Reflections on the World Conference on Drowning Prevention 2019

Phuket may want to be known for its white-sand beaches, its plentiful dive and snorkel sites and its proximity to a host of beauti­ful islets, but there’s something else that’s creeping into the picture, something that sits uncomfortably next to this trio of tourist draws: drownings.

By Tanyaluk Sakoot

Sunday 3 November 2019, 11:30AM

Thailand is “number one” for child drown­ing deaths among Asean countries, and the World Health Organisation notes that the rate of drownings in Thailand is twice as high as the world’s average. Little wonder, then, that the country was given clear prominence at the recent World Conference on Drown­ing Prevention (WCDP) 2019 in Durban, South Africa.

The conference, held last month, brought together the world’s foremost experts, researchers and policy-makers in drowning prevention, rescue, lifesaving and water safety from 50 nations with a view to exchang­ing, debating and reviewing the latest progress on preventing drowning. The Phuket News was proud to be in attendance alongside Vitanya Chuayuan, secre­tary of Surf Life Saving Thailand.

“At the WCDP, it was great to be with people that have the same passion. The conference demonstrated the different approaches and tools used in drowning prevention in different countries,” Vitanya said. “Like the California State Park Lifeguard Training section who use analysis to predict drowning dangers, and the Los Angeles Fire Department who highlighted the standards of physical fitness.”

“All the workshops and speeches empowered and sparked a fire within me. I aim to use this knowledge and these skills to promote water safety for kids in the community,” she added.

Vitanya continues the legacy of her husband Prathaiyuth Chuayaun who helped to develop Phuket’s first beach lifeguards some 20 years ago and drove them to achieve international certification and even compete in international lifesaving events. His focus was also firmly on water safety for children, namely making swimming and surf survival skills a standard element of their education.

With more than 22,700 drownings involving chil­dren under 15 in Thailand between 2000 and 2018 – an average of 1,262 children per year or a shocking five kids per day – this should certainly be a priority.

Surf Life Saving Thailand has delivered water safety training to 6,000 children across Phuket since 2012, which includes lessons in swimming, identify­ing risks, CPR and lifesaving skills. The training is not just tailored to a beach setting but also swimming pools, lakes and water parks, and it aims to teach chil­dren not only how to keep themselves safe but how to identify when another swimmer is in danger and how to help them.

This style of community-driven training was firmly highlighted at the conference by International Life Saving Federation President Graham Ford AM.

“As well as ensuring lifeguards have the competen­cy and skill required to undertake rescues, we need to educate local communities on the ground. Youth learn-to-swim programmes, CPR programmes,” Gra­ham said. “CPR is a simple skill that we can all learn, and it’s not just for the water.”

Justin Scarr, the Chair of the International Life Saving Federation Drowning Prevention Commission, added, “Building up a drowning prevention group by local people and making public information available in several local areas are crucial.”

“I expect that people learn, focus on and build up drowning prevention groups in their communities. Also people are being trained in drowning preven­tion by Phuket Life Saving, which is the only such [lifesaving] organisation in Thailand, and which has the experience and skills from the International Life Saving Federation.”

As Graham and Justin’s comments indicate, Surf Life Saving Thailand are on the right track, and Vitanya is determined to keep building on the or­ganisation’s work. In 2020, they aim to partner with other organisations in Phuket to train a further 1,000 children at nipper level, 30 at junior level and 100 at senior level.

Nipper level, for ages 8-15, builds chil­drens’ confidence in floating in the water and using a paddle board; junior level, for ages 16-17, teaches lifesaving skills, CPR, the ability to swim 200 metres in eight minutes and the ability to swim underwater for two to three metres; and senior level (up to 18) builds on junior level with further distances and more developed lifesaving skills.

“We want to build the children up in community so that those who receive training will volunteer them­selves to be mentors for other kids,” explained Vitanya.

With government bureaucracy a barrier to the consistent provision of lifeguards and water safety in mainstream education, the responsibility shifts to communities. And they should be applauded for their efforts – whether it’s Surf Life Saving Thailand, the International Surf Lifesaving Association, the Rotary Club of Patong Beach or any of the other com­munity groups or individuals working towards safety in Phuket waters and beyond.

The Phuket News’ Chief Reporter Tanyaluk Sakoot was one of only 10 journalists selected worldwide to attend the World Conference on Drowning Prevention (WCDP2019) through a Reporting Fellowship gener­ously provided by the International Center for Jour­nalists (ICFJ) to empower journalists.


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