Drowning Facts and Figures

Why so much emphasis on staying safe around water? Unlike many animals that instinctively and naturally swim if suddenly dropped into the water, humans must learn how to survive in the water.

Why so much emphasis on staying safe around water? Unlike many animals that instinctively and naturally swim if suddenly dropped into the water, humans must learn how to survive in the water. Swimming and water survival skills are not difficult to learn though. As history shows, many cultures throughout the ages have recognised the value of such skills.

Lifesaving and Personal Survival

The earliest movements to help people become safer in and around the water focused on learning to swim and other survival techniques. This is often called personal survival: being able to help oneself from trouble in the water without the help of others, or being able to keep from drowning while waiting for help.

Obviously it is important to know how to swim if you find yourself in water and unable to reach safety immediately. But even those who know how to swim might need to use personal survival skills in situations like these:

  • A person might not be able to swim to safety after falling out of a boat or swimming out too far.
  • Someone might be carried away by a strong current.
  • Unforeseen circumstances may develop, such as cramps or an inability to swim because of very cold water.
  • A pedestrian may fall from a pier or be swept from shore by a large wave.

Beyond knowing how to swim, personal survival skills include:

  • Survival floating including HELP (Heat Escape Lessening Position).
  • Treading water and sculling.
  • Orienting yourself underwater.

Many of these skills have evolved from training given to military personnel. As people increasingly take to the water for sport and recreation, there has been a renewed interest in such personal survival skills. Many people spend their work or free time close to or on the water, and they are realising that if they have difficulties in the water, survival techniques can save them.

Lifesaving and Lifeguarding

The terms “lifesaver and “lifeguard are used around the world to describe individuals with special training who are stationed to prevent accidents and to respond to life-threatening emergencies in the aquatic environment. We encourage you to pursue such training yourself, if you have not already done so, to learn the knowledge and skills that may help you save a life.

Drowning Statistics

To understand why it is so important to think about safety when in or around the water, one need only look at drowning statistics. Even with swimming and safety classes available in many countries, large numbers of people still drown every year. The best scientific evidence available has taught us that 1.2 million people around the world die by drowning every year, that is more than two persons per minute. From that more than 50 percent are children. There are perhaps eight to ten times that many who experience a drowning process but who reach safety alone or are rescued by their peers, by others or by lifesavers/lifeguards.

About one third of children who drown do so in and around the home. Even children with one or more swimming certificates may drown in emergencies. Drowning rates vary considerably around the world for a number of reasons. For example, in some countries, fewer people learn to swim. Others countries are prone to flooding, in which more people unexpectedly find themselves in water emergencies.

Who Drowns? In What Circumstances?

To better understand how and why people drown, so that more can be done to prevent drownings and to save lives, the ILS has studied more than 1,000 drowning incidents in detail and examined statistics for more than 10,000 other drownings. The following information is based on this study.

Gender & Age

Overall, far more drowning victims are male than female. Perhaps this is so because, worldwide, more men than women participate in water sports or are near water in their work or recreation. Men may also take more and greater risks, or tend more often to overrate their swimming abilities.

Worldwide, most drownings occur to people in three age categories:

  • 0 to 5 years old
  • 20 to 25 years old
  • over 60 years old

All over the world, infants and toddlers drown more frequently than people at any other age. In this age group drowning is the leading cause of death, followed by accidents in and around the home and road traffic accidents. Inadequate supervision, an inability to swim, and lack of barriers separating toddlers from pools and other water are the main causes of drownings of small children.

Older children drown less frequently but still in large numbers. They generally drown because of their parents’ inadequate supervision. Parents may have unrealistic expectations about how well their children obey their safety rules when not directly supervised.

Frequent participation in water sports as well as a tendency to be more reckless could explain the high drowning rate among those 20 to 25 years of age.

The high drowning rate of older people may be related to difficulties managing emergency situations. Many older people have never learned to swim. They also are more likely to have health problems that can cause loss of consciousness while swimming, such as a heart attack or low blood pressure.

When and Where People Drown?

Drownings happen year round and at all hours of the day and night. However, it is clear that drownings peak in the warmer seasons as people flock to the water for recreation and relief from the heat. Prime time for drownings is mid to late afternoon. Again, this is largely predictable given that this is the hottest part of the day. By late afternoon, after several hours of water recreation ” and perhaps alcohol ” people are generally more tired and less able to make good judgments about risk.

The vast majority of drownings occur in open water” the sea, lakes, ponds, rivers. However, drownings occur in all water including swimming pools and bathtubs. Small children have been known to drown in just a few inches of water ” in buckets and ditches for example.


Most drownings happen in environments and during activities unsupervised by lifeguards. And the great majority of drownings occur in circumstances where the victim has no intention of going into the water.

In terms of recreation, those involving small, and especially motorised boats rank high in the list of activities drowning victims were engaged in. Drowning is the main reason for these deaths and it often occurs after a collision with other boats or objects, capsizing or falling overboard are the main causes of these boating-related deaths. This is why the wearing of life jackets is so important aboard any boat.

  • One quarter of drowning victims were swimmers.
  • Young children 2 to 4 years of age have a higher risk of drowning than any other age group. Most of these children are alone and playing near water when they fell in and drowned. The backyard swimming pool is the riskiest site for these youngsters.
  • Four out of every ten drownings happen within two meters of shore or the pool side. And one-quarter happen in shallow water one meter deep or less.
  • One-third of water-related deaths occur after dark, including fatal boating collisions and in Canada e.g. snowmobiling drownings.
  • In Finland e.g. yearly over 50 accidents occur while driving over ice that is too thin to support the car.
  • Twenty percent of all drownings occur at private homes.
  • Few victims in boating deaths were wearing a life jacket ” and one-quarter do not even have a life jacket in the boat.
  • Approximately 3,000 people world wide become partially or completely paralysed each year as a result of breaking their necks. Most of these injuries occur while diving into shallow water.
  • The ILS estimates that over 1,000,000 rescues are made each year in the World by lifesavers and lifeguards certified in the member federation’s training programmes.

In Conclusion

While drowning takes a large toll around the world, there is some good news: hundreds of thousands of lives are saved every year by trained lifesavers and lifeguards. And even though greater numbers of people now engage in water activities, the drowning rates have not gone up.

This means that a combination of a growing interest in water safety and better training for lifesavers and lifeguards is in some areas successfully preventing many drownings.