Drowning: a leading killer!

  • Nuno Domingos Garrido Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro Research Centre in Sports Sciences, Health Sciences and Human Development, CIDESD, Portugal
  • Aldo Matos Costa Universidade da Beira Interior Research Centre in Sports Sciences, Health Sciences and Human Development, CIDESD, Portugal
  • Robert Keig Stallman Norwegian Lifesaving Society Tanzanian Lifesaving Society Norwegian School of Sport Science


Drowning kills at least 372,000 people worldwide every year and is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional death, accounting for 7% of all deaths stemming from accidents (WHO, 2014). Conceptually, “drowning” is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon, characterized as a chain of events (Bierens, 2006). Drowning is defined as the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from immersion or submersion in liquid.

Research on drowning as a phenomenon presents several difficulties - most of all, that global data concerning the number of occurrences are not accurate. Nevertheless, detailed analysis of the registered incidents allows the identification of risk factors of drowning. An in-depth analysis of the risk factors is the basis for the creation of targeted and effective strategies to prevent drowning.

Due to variability of situations which could lead to a drowning episode, experts suggest the adoption of a multi-layer prevention model, rather than opting for isolated measures, since no single measure can prevent all deaths and injuries caused by submersion. Among the preventive measures we would like to emphasize instruction in swimming and water safety. So, what does "knowing how to swim" really mean? Some authors define mastery of this competence as swimming a given distance, while others put the emphasis on how this/any given distance is swum (Stallman, Junge, & Blixt, 2008). It has long been realized that there is no contradiction between learning those competencies which make a person less susceptible to drowning and those competencies which prepare the path towards higher levels of performance and competition. Aquatic movement researchers and practitioners and drowning prevention researchers and practitioners, share in the responsibility for drowning prevention though they are often unaware of it. The question “What should be taught to children?” is too infrequently asked. There remains great variation in what is taught and programs continue to be guided by tradition and expert opinion. The great variation is proof that we have not agreed on the content of learn – to – swim.

The concept of water competence was launched in 1995 and emphasized both a broad repertoire of physical skills as well as knowledge and values. It was then adapted this to drowning prevention, defining it as “the sum of all personal aquatic movements that help prevent drowning, as well as the associated water safety knowledge, attitudes, and behavior that facilitate safety in, on and around the water”. The advent of the concept of “water competence” has opened the door for a revival of the interest in the development of a broad repertoire of physical aquatic skills and of the integration of both cognitive and afferent competencies. It also shifts the focus from “defining swimming” to a broader and more inclusive notion of which competencies can contribute to making people less susceptible to the risk of drowning.

Water competence is a much more comprehensive and inclusive concept than 'swimming skill', since it also includes both cognitive and afferent competencies, making it especially relevant in the prevention of drowning. Nevertheless, drowning is a complex research phenomenon, as is its prevention. The concept of water competence is a living concept and still in development.

Please keep yourself water safe!

Research Note