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Swimming instruction prevents child deaths

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2009/Crowe
Young boys learn to swim in Golla Para village. Proportionate to population, more children die from drowning in Bangladesh than in any other country.
- Sarah Crowe and Rajat Madhok

Sirajganj district, Bangladesh, 31 August. For a country already plagued by monsoon floods and cyclones and swamped by the world's biggest rivers, Bangladesh is boldly braving itself for the worst of climate change and vaccinating its children against emergencies and death by drowning -- by teaching them to swim.

When once children died in poverty-stricken Bangladesh from the “traditional killers” like measles, diarrhoea, and malnutrition, it’s emerged now that more children die from drown here than anywhere else in the world -- each year around 17,000 Bangladeshi children die simply because they cannot swim and thousands more are left permanently impaired by water accidents and most of these children succumb in ponds and water ways just 20 metres away from their homes.

''Knowledge of swimming is absolutely fundamental to survival in Bangladesh,'' said Carel de Rooy, Unicef’s country representative

Sitting in the heart of the Ganges delta, water is everywhere in Bangladesh. Marshes, rice paddies, ponds, and with climate change, extreme weather patterns, flooding and rising sea-levels, Unicef and partners are in a race against time to teach more Bangladeshi children as worse to save their lives – and others – by swimming. Already 35 000 children have been taught to swim in the past 5 years and countless others taught to save lives.

As a small group of boys – the girls are taught separately -- line up for lifesaving and an unusual lesson in immunization. In a makeshift bamboo enclosure in the murky waters, the swimming instructor awaits for them. He says his role is just like giving the children a jab or medicine.

“I am giving these children the vaccine against death, so that when they grow up to become doctors and engineers, but if for any reason they go to the water and drown that’s it,” said Shahinur Alom, a swimming instructor in the village of Golla Para in central Bangladesh, “We are giving them a valuable lesson – how to swim and giving them confidence. Before, some of the children were even too scared to come into the water." 

Shahinur and other trainers are part of a programme developed with Unicef Bangladesh by the Australian Royal Life Saving Society which is providing advanced instruction and technical support. Unicef and its NGO partner Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh CIPRB is working to cut the toll from drowning through innovative programmes which include Prevention of Child Injuries through Social-intervention and Education or PRECISE.

Besides teaching children to swim, a critical part of the programme is teaching what not to do.

 “A large number of child deaths occur during the day hours from nine am to one pm, fathers go off to work in the fields, elder siblings to schools and mothers get busy with the household chores, this leaves small children unsupervised and vulnerable to death due to injury”, says Dr Saidur Mashreky, an epidemiologist and founding member of CIPRB. So at Anchals or crèches in villages, children too young to save others or to learn to swim properly themselves, learn to avoid injury – understanding through song and play about the dangers lurking in  pools of water, not to run  into the road, not to play with sharp objects, learning lessons for life.

Older children are taught how to save lives -- not to risk leaping in themselves but rather find a stick, or pole and rescue the drowning child. 

Bangladesh has made big strides in treating and vaccinating against other big killers of children like diarrhea, measles and malnutrition, that deaths from drowning were hidden, as a result death by drowning, was hidden. Global climate change is a very real threat for Bangladesh. An increase in melting ice in the Himalayas is causing both a rise in sea levels and increased erosion as rivers flow faster. Some predictions have suggested that the country of 150 million people could lose up to 20 per cent of its land by 2030. By then up to 20 million people could have become climate-change refugees, forced to leave their flooded homes. More than a decade ago, half of Bhola Island, Bangladesh's biggest island, was engulfed by rising sea levels, forcing 500,000 people to flee. This is expected to get worse.

“ We always have to be cutting edge, “ said Carel de Rooy. “Some estimates are that if the sea levels were to rise in the next century by one meter, a third or more of Bangladesh could come under water so this is definitely very important. This is one element of building resilience of the population of Bangladesh, As it is Bangladesh is very prone to water related emergencies such as floods and cyclones. It's likely that as a result of climate change, these things are going to be more frequent, more intense. What we’re doing now is going to pay off four or five years down the road. We have to look beyond just the reaching the Millenium Goals. This is very relevant for Bangladesh. “

One of the founders of the swimming program, Fazlur Rahman of the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research in Bangladesh, said the swimming lessons had already saved lives.

An independent evaluation found a marked reduction in drowning deaths in areas with a Swim Safe program.

The Australian instructors who have been working in Bangladesh say they believe they have already had an impact. Justin Scarr, head of the Royal Life Saving Society Australia, said: "The reaction from people has been fabulous." And for one young girl, the lessons proved crucial. Ten-year-old Chaina, who had done the 3 week course, told us how she used bamboo pole to save her friends Liza, five, and three-year-old Khushi, after they fell into a deep pond near their homes when they were out picking lilies in the marshes near their homes.

“We didn’t realize how deep the water was and when we fell into the water, Chaina saved our lives,” says a grateful Khushi. The parents of the two rescued children then also immediately enrolled their daughters in the swimsafe programme.  

They may not be Olympic swimmers yet but they’ve learnt to swim, save their own lives and save others. With 100 000 more children expected to be taught in the coming years, Bangladesh is steadily building up a herd immunity against death by drowning for its children.

* Unicef’s implementing partners on this programme are the Centre for Injury Prevention and Research, Bangladesh CIPRB and TASC The Alliance for Safe Children and donors include the Netherlands National Committee, Spanish Government and the International Inspiration.



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