Silent crisis in the water

Malawi is endowed with the 365-kilometre-long Lake Malawi—the world’s third largest freshwater lake. The country is also blessed with other lakes, including Chiuta, Malombe, Kazuni and Chilwa, plus its largest river, the Shire, which flows through a number of the Southern Region’s districts. But there is a crisis that silently lies under the water as Andrew Mtupanyama explores.

While many were taking stock of the 2018/19 festive season, the nation was shocked to learn that the Eastern Policing Region alone registered 11 deaths in about a week.

A statement from the Malawi Police Service (MPS) showed that five people drowned in Zomba, four in Balaka while two drowned in Mangochi.

Out of the 11 cases, eight involved children aged between three and 13, according to police records. One of the cases involved an epileptic person who had a seizure while bathing in a river.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) indicates that drowning is the leading cause of death in children below 14 years old.

Drowning responsible for 372 000 deaths annually

While official information cases of drowning is hard to come by in Malawi and other parts of the Africa, the case in the Eastern Policing Region synchronises with findings of the WHO report which show that children aged between five and 14 are at greater risk of drowning.

The situation seems to be spread across the country. From the 103 cases of drowning that were published in Nation Publications Limited (NPL) brands between January 2018 and August 2019, 35 cases were reported in the Northern Region, 32 in the Central Region and another 32 in the South.

While lakes cover a third of the country, the sample of published cases of drowning shows that 59 cases occurred in the rivers and streams while the lakes claimed 22 lives. Wells, which are usually located within homesteads are the third risky places, with 12 casualties in the period under review.

In the period, NPL alone reported four drowning cases in latrines, three in dams, two in swimming pools and one in a bucket.

WHO scientist Dr. David Meddings says drowning is not only a child survival issue.

“African surveys show very high drowning rates among the fishers, people who depend on water transport, the migrant population and flood-related disasters,” says Meddings.

He cites lack of child supervision, lack of barriers around water bodies, living and working around water, travelling on water, drunkenness and flood water disasters as some of the risk factors.

“There is evidence that 75 percent of mortality in flood disasters are due to drowning. The IPCCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report indicates that floods will increase in frequency and severity. There is need to improve rescue and recovery mechanisms,” he says.

In Malawi, 56 people died in the aftermath of hurricane Desmond and cyclone Idai that hit some parts of the country early this year.

Police usually advises people to avoid attempting crossing flooded rivers and leaving children unattended. The standard statement which comes at the end of announcements of drowning cases further advises parents and guardians not to allow children to go for swimming, fishing or playing around water bodies such as dams, streams and rivers.

Increased patrols along the shores also yield positive results in cases of near drowning.

Last year, Malawi Defence Force (MDF) soldiers from Chilumba Barracks rescued a man in Karonga whose boat capsised. This was followed by another MDF and police joint effort that rescued Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) members whose boat sailed into troubled waters.

In Durban, on the shores of Indian Ocean in South Africa, specially-trained lifeguards under the Ethekwini Municpality monitor activities on the beach.

“We take water safety seriously. We randomly check people who come to drink at the beach. We advise people who are overdressed no to go into the water,” says lifeguard Rocky Randall.

He says, apart from having lifeguards and lifesaving equipment the municipality also puts and ambulance on standby.

Despite, the scary figures, which in some instances have claimed as high as three lives in five days, as police reported in drowning cases they recorded in Nkhata Bay in March 2018, some areas along the shores of Lake Malawi have registered reduction in drowning cases.

In Mangochi, for instance, the district registered a 67 percent reduction in drowning cases in their 2018 half-year report that compared the same period in 2017.

Mangochi Police Station spokesperson Amina Tepani was quoted as attributing the success to continuous sensitisation of communities along the lakeshore.

The George Institute for Global Health injury epidemiologist Dr. Jagnoor Jagnoor encourages a proactive approach to drowning.

“For every dollar spent on resilience, you save seven dollars,” she says.

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