UN Resolution on Global Drowning Prevention led by Bangladesh

Sadrul Hasan Mazumder

9 May, 2021 12:00 AM printer

Human civilisation has been facing a severe and acute public health emergency due to the yearlong COVID-19 pandemic, which has exposed critical challenges for achieving the targets of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) globally. While the states are committed through the SDG spirit of "Leaving No One Behind" the COVID-19 pandemic has further damaged the already fractured humanity at the global and state level. Though the global policy attention and individual state's response to COVID-19 are of utmost importance and critical in influencing the trajectory of national epidemics, as it engages human attention, it might take a longer to reverse the situation to normalcy. However, the deadly facts of drowning coming out through multiple studies at state, regional and global levels accentuate to be proactive, devise and implement drowning prevention strategies applicable to each country's needs and prevent any further loss of life.

To address such an unrecognised and unseen epidemic, the United Nations General Assembly adopted unanimously the landmark resolution on drowning prevention on April 28, 2021. The Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN, Ambassador Rabab Fatima, introduced the first-ever one-off UNGA resolution on "Global Drowning Prevention" which acknowledges the 'silent epidemic' for the first time in the UN's 75-year history. Co-led by Ireland, the resolution was co-sponsored by a total of 81 Member States. The resolution recognises that drowning affects every nation of the world and provides a framework for action for an effective response to the unacceptably high number of drowning deaths. The resolution further identifies that drowning is a preventable cause of mortality that disproportionately affects children and adolescents across the nations.

A new UN Day for drowning prevention, July 25, has also been proclaimed to promote awareness and encourage national action, as well as share best practices and key solutions to drowning. Bangladesh Permanent Mission to the UN in New York has been working since 2018 to ensure that this global and preventable epidemic secures much-deserved political recognition internationally. The resolution on drowning prevention will accelerate the process of the member states including Bangladesh to adopt and implement national policies and strategies to tackle the drowning epidemic. Adoption of the first-ever resolution on drowning prevention by the United National General Assembly will be regarded as the greater call for the global regional and national cooperation to end the silent epidemic.

Though preventable through human interventions, shreds of evidence show that drowning is the 3rd leading cause of accidental deaths across the globe. Drowning is a major, and neglected, cause of global mortality that claims 235,000 lives every year, 650 every day, 26 every hour. Drowning mortality is the highest among children aged 1- 4 years while more than 50 per cent of drowning deaths occur before 3rd birthday globally. The low and middle-income countries are the most affected compared to the high-income countries, where the drowning rate is three times higher than the high-income counties. Under such circumstances, the United Nations has adopted the first-ever much-deserved resolution on global drowning prevention.

Multiple factors have been identified by public health researchers from across the globe that triggers drowning deaths such as insufficient or lack of physical barriers between people and water, particularly close to home; lack of (or inadequate) supervision of young children; uncovered or unprotected water supplies and lack of safe water crossings; lack of water safety awareness and risky behaviour around water, such as swimming alone; traveling on water, especially in overcrowded or poorly maintained mal-standard ferries; flood disasters, whether from extreme rainfall, storm surges, tsunamis or cyclones. Compared to the adversity of drowning, communities, governments and non-government actors at large are not aware of the harshness of drowning while building awareness among a critical mass is essential but not sufficient.

A wide range of solutions has already been innovated in reducing child drowning, which have been evidentially found to be effective means to prevent drowning in a rural context across diverse geography around the globe. Proven in Bangladesh context, solutions such as strategic use of barriers to control access to water, creation of safe places such as daycare centres for preschool children, and teaching school-age children basic swimming skills have been found effective in other parts of the globe and replicable to diverse context and geography. In addition to these three tested interventions, there must be an effective mechanism for flood risk management; strict enforcement of inland water transport legislations followed by enactment and adoption of water safety policies. Establishing a preventive safety net, it requires capacitating a critical mass as the First Responder and ensuring that communities as a whole reject all harmful traditional practices.

While implementation of the majority of the tested solutions of drowning prevention requires the functional engagement of multiple stakeholder agencies within and among the nation-states. Under the current scope of WHO, drowning has been considered under the non-communicable disease control segment. But if the drowning prevention interventions are thoroughly examined, it would be evident that most of the interventions do not fall under the jurisdiction or scope of the department of health, which creates problems at the country level. For example in Bangladesh, developing daycare centres, teaching swimming skills, and conducting water safety sessions at schools do not fall under the jurisdiction of the ministry of health. While introducing the resolution at the plenary of the General Assembly, Bangladesh’ Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Rabab Fatima, stated that "the Government of Bangladesh recognises the urgency to have the resolution to generate a greater political commitment to the prevention of drowning and is honoured to lead this effort at the UN". Ambassador Fatima, in her remarks, stressed, "We have reduced child mortality rates globally, however, if we cannot bring death from drowning to 'zero', our success in primary healthcare, and therefore, achievement of SDG 3 will remain unaccomplished."

Scaling up the tested interventions of drowning prevention in the global context is frugal but there are issues of greater concern. Integration of drowning prevention interventions with the SDG framework and other global commitments relating to the wellbeing of children and recognising country-specific activities such as the inclusion of water safety lessons in education curricula or child welfare activities is the key to ensure the process for scalability and sustainability. Now, it is evident that to achieve several global goals it is imperative to scale up the drowning prevention interventions. The UN resolution on Global Drowning Prevention has created the scope so that global development and political leaders will now engage in the discussions and formulate an affordable solution to reduce the drowning epidemic without which the majority of the targets of SDGs relating to child mortality cannot be achieved. Such a landmark UN resolution on global drowning prevention will help to bring the member states under an accountability framework so that they will adopt policies and allocate resources at the national level for effective implementation of drowning prevention interventions.

Most importantly, following the adoption of the resolution of UN global drowning prevention, the member states will be accountable for developing a multi-stakeholder coordination mechanism and accumulating resources, and developing a monitoring framework. Frugal innovations of drowning prevention, designed to save children from drowning having unique features and opportunities for promoting stimulations for early childhood development should be dealt with multifaceted efforts. Such opportunities should be linked with all concerned multilateral agencies like UNDP, UNICEF, government agencies having special mandates to ensure welfare including safety and education for children. More importantly, the implementation of such interventions has created scope for women's social and economic empowerment through their engagement in the implementation of the interventions such as running the daycare facilities, transferring lifesaving skills of swimming. So, to scale up the frugal innovations of drowning prevention nationally and globally where resource mobilisation is the greatest concern, it is urgent to bring those interventions under a multi-stakeholder coordination framework. Most importantly, the UN resolution on global drowning prevention creates the scope for the member states to build a multi-stakeholder coordination mechanism to tackle drowning deaths having specially focused on:

                • adoption of the national drowning prevention strategy;

                • enhancing awareness among critical mass on the adversity of drowning;

                • adopting multi-country or regional coordination mechanisms for gathering and sharing data.


 The writer is a policy activist and can be reached at [email protected]