The steep price we pay for our love affair with water

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Tui Gallaher was a normal teenager, going for a swim with his cousin on a hot summer's evening at Maroubra. Geoffrey Blackadder, 60, went into the surf to rescue young relatives from a rip at Wooli Beach. Two-year-old Henry Tran tumbled into a garden pond. Robbi and Charli Manago were 23 months old when they entered their backyard swimming pool in Kellyville Ridge. Vera Peacock was two when she did the same. Sujan Adhikari was a 29-year-old masters student from Nepal who went for a dip at Wattamolla Lagoon on Christmas Day.

They are the faces of the price of Australia's love affair with water - which is much steeper than realised. The Royal Life Saving Society Australia's annual report shows nearly 1000 people drowned or were hospitalised from near-drownings last year.

The report says Australians underestimate the dangers of water. NSW's deadly summer of drownings - where 13 people died between Christmas and New Year - contributed to 291 fatal drownings across Australia, a rise of three per cent from last year's 282 deaths, found the National Drowning Report 2017.

For the first time, the report includes what Royal Life Saving describes as non-fatal drownings. For every person who drowned in Australia nearly three more people were hospitalised with non-fatal but serious injuries from non-fatal drownings, the society estimated. Many of these 685 people who narrowly escaped a watery death will very likely suffer long-term disability including brain damage.

Men accounted for three out of every four deaths. Fatal drownings in inland waterways, including rivers, dams and lakes, which are often unpatrolled and unsupervised, accounted for slightly more than one in three drowning deaths.

Fatal drownings among the youngest and the oldest rose at a much greater rate than the year before: There was a 38 per cent rise in children aged zero to four years of age, with 29 dying in pools, rivers and creeks. Deaths of people older than 75 also rose 38 per cent, with 36 people dying, some with pre-existing conditions or from complications associated with medications.

As the weather warmed up, Justin Scarr, the chief executive of Royal Lifesaving urged the public to choose safer places to swim, including public pools and patrolled beaches.

"Australians love the water. It's an important part of our culture," said Mr Scarr.

Mr Scarr said the number of deaths was a "sobering reminder" for young and old to learn to swim, to increase lifejacket use, supervise children around water, and swim in safer places such as pools and patrolled beaches.

"Last summer was shocking, with drowning deaths in NSW four times higher than average between Christmas and New Year," he said.

His comments coincide with reports that a 32 -year-old Victorian man Shaun Oliver died while attempting to save a 12- year old boy who was stuck in a rip on an unpatrolled beach in Wollongong, NSW, on Sunday.

The boy's three siblings were also rescued from dangerous surf on Wollongong City Beach, which had been closed because of dangerous conditions.

Amy Peden, Royal Life Saving Society's national manager policy and research, said the 695 non-fatal drownings had been included to show the real extent of the danger of water and to fight complacency around water.

Nearly half of those hospitalised with non-fatal injuries were under five, and research shows many would have life-long injuries such as those suffered by Samuel Morris.

On April 9, 2006, Sam's lifeless body was pulled out of their Cranebrook home's pool. Sam suffered severe brain injury, surviving until February 22, 2014, when he died at Westmead Children's Hospital's Bear Cottage. His parents set up the Samuel Morris Foundation to provide support for other children who had suffered from non-fatal drownings and prevent other deaths and non-fatal drowning incidents.

Analysis by the Royal Lifesaving Society also showed there was increased risk from swimming in unpatrolled locations, risk taking by young men, and the need for water safety awareness by those at high risk, such as foreign students and tourists.

Despite the annual increase, deaths are down 24 per cent since 2008, when the Australian Water Council pledged to reduce drowning by 50 per cent by 2020.

This drop meant 90 more people were alive, and resulted 35 per cent fewer drowning deaths among children zero ot 14 years of age.

The numbers

291 people drowned

685 people were hospitalised following serous non-fatal drowning incidents

74% of all drowning deaths were male

23% of deaths occurred in rivers, creeks and streams

29 children aged zero to four died

This story The steep price we pay for our love affair with water first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.