The global drowning problem

An estimated 360,000 people drown worldwide every year. It is a staggering number, yet this global problem isn’t receiving the serious attention it needs.
To put this conservative estimate into context, it’s the equivalent of 70% of the global death toll from malnutrition, and 60% of malaria.

In many parts of Asia, drowning is now the leading killer of children over the age of 1. In Bangladesh, for example, 50 children drown every day. Over 90% of drownings happen in Africa and Asia - the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that drowning rates in Sub-Saharan Africa are 10 times higher than in the UK.

Why are so many deaths unaccounted for?

The WHO estimates that around 360,000 people drown worldwide each year, but this is a conservative estimate because: 

  • people drown in lakes, rivers, ponds and oceans - not hospitals - making formal reporting of these deaths rare.
  • it doesn’t include deaths from transport accidents such as ferries sinking, natural disasters like floods, or migrants lost as they cross open water - tragedies that kill thousands each year.
A fisherman casts his net on a river in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Photo: Mike Lavis

A fisherman working on a river in Dhaka, Bangladesh

What factors make people more at risk?

Over 90% of drownings happen in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), some of them lacking basic water safety education and services. Critically, people in LMICs are far more exposed to open water, as they often have to rely on ponds and lakes for daily tasks like washing and bathing. So tragedies often hit frighteningly close to home - in Bangladesh most drownings of children under 5 occur within 20m of where they live.

Girls travelling to school by boat in Bangladesh

Photo: GMB Akash

Girls in Bangladesh travel to school by boat: children exposed to open water in their daily lives face a higher risk of drowning

So what’s being done about it?

Whether it’s 360,000 or a figure much higher, many who work in development - from NGOs to national governments and UN agencies - are largely unaware of these statistics. We think it’s time this changed. We are working in partnership with other lifesaving and development organisations to raise awareness and find strategies that will make a difference.

Interested in learning more? Read the WHO’s report on global drowning (PDF download) or find out why the RNLI and our partners are taking on this silent epidemic.