About 95 percent of child drowning deaths occur in Asia, where two-thirds of the world's children live. One project is trying to make a difference by giving kids the training they need to stay safe in the water.
Drowning is emerging as a major public health concern across Asia as childhood deaths from communicable diseases decline sharply in response to high-profile educational campaigns and public health interventions. Child safety experts say swim-safety still receives little funding and attention from local governments and the international donor community.
In Vietnam alone, nearly 12,000 people drown each year, and international visitors are often shocked to learn of the figure, says John McAnulty, Australia's Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City. "If more and more people would help address the problem, that would be very good."
"Like many other countries, most of the money Australia contributes to Vietnam goes to large infrastructure projects, like bridges, water sanitation and climate change," he told DW. "It would be nice if some of the money could be directed to learn to swim programs here."
The good news is: researchers around the world are now testing a range of interventions designed to prevent drownings and encourage more reporting on the issue in Asia. Some are experimenting with village daycare programs, in which children are supervised, rather then left to wander off, while their mothers are busy with household chores. And a range of non-profit and charity groups are teaching children to swim so that they are better prepared to avoid water-based accidents.
Getting into schools
The SwimSafe program organizes swimming lessons across Asia, in order to help kids stay safe in the water. The program is a joint collaboration by US-based non-profit organization The Alliance for Safe Children, together with the Royal Life Saving Society of Australia and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
As of last year it had trained more than 150,000 kids in Bangladesh and 15,000 kids in Vietnam to swim.
Some critics have questioned whether swimming classes actually prevent drowning, saying the classes may actually promote over-confidence and lead to accidents. But, recent research by UNICEF found that fatal drowning rates among children who took SwimSafe classes in Bangladesh were 93 per cent lower than among children who did not participate.
Nguyen Thi Phuong Loan, whose 10-year-old daughter, My, attends swimming lessons in the Vietnamese city of Danang, says she's happy to see her daughter learning swimming skills that could potentially save her life.
"In case there is a flood and she runs into trouble, she'll know how to rescue herself," Loan says.
A silent killer
According to a 2012 UNICEF study in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and China, the majority of child drowning deaths occur among children under four years of age in rural areas, within 20 meters of their homes. The report also showed that the risk of drowning increases when parents migrate to cities to find work, generally leaving their kids only in the care of grandparents.
Although many assume that most drownings occur after extreme weather events like floods and typhoons, it actually is a constant, year-round threat, according to UNICEF. And, as many drowning victims are often not brought to hospital, the drowning rates could actually be higher than reported.
The Belgium-based International Life Saving Federation says the worldwide drowning figure may be at least 1 million.
"We can quibble about the numbers, but there's no doubt it's a massive problem," says Steve Beerman, the organizations's president.
Confronting the problem
In Vietnam, the SwimSafe organization has also funded the construction of eleven portable pools in Danang and other cities, and trained local instructors to teach swim lessons.
At Be Van Dan Elementary School in Danang, school principal Nguyen The Quyet says the project is a welcome addition to his school's syllabus, especially because a child from the school drowned in 2007 because he couldn't swim. But, he adds that many other schools across Vietnam lack pools and swim-safety programs, and the government should invest more in drowning prevention.
"Most Vietnamese don't recognize that survival swimming is important, until someone drowns," Nguyen The Quyet told DW. "Only then do they pay attention."