Par­ent­ing – Wa­ter Safety

Ev­ery­thing you need to know about keep­ing your lit­tle ones safe around wa­ter


A two-and-a-half-year-old child fol­lows his older brother into the fam­ily swim­ming pool. The older brother is obliv­i­ous to this; his deep dive and un­der­wa­ter swim to the other side of the pool may feel like it was a short one, but it only takes 20 – 60 sec­onds for a child to drown.

The neigh­bour, Max Boy­ana* re­calls hear­ing a lit­tle scream while the young one was drown­ing in the pool, and came charg­ing to get the lit­tle boy out. Their par­ents hadn’t heard any­thing – the mu­sic was too loud and they hadn’t seen that the boy had gone af­ter his brother. The neigh­bour was un­for­tu­nately too late. The lit­tle boy had in­haled too much wa­ter into his lungs, his heart stopped and he died on the scene, de­spite at­tempts to re­sus­ci­tate him.

This in­ci­dent is one that’s quite com­mon in South Africa, es­pe­cially around hol­i­day sea­son. In fact, Med­i­cal Re­search Coun­cil data shows that drown­ing re­mains the lead­ing cause of un­nat­u­ral deaths in chil­dren un­der the age of five. At least one child drowns ev­ery day in South Africa, par­tic­u­larly chil­dren un­der 14. For ev­ery child that drowns, five are left brain dam­aged.

“This year, in Joburg alone, we’ve re­ported 53 deaths by drown­ing, 43 of th­ese were chil­dren. Chil­dren from in­for­mal set­tle­ments drown mostly from ac­ci­dents that oc­cur from play­ing by the river streams or dams. In for­mal res­i­den­tial ar­eas, most chil­dren drowned due to un­cov­ered swim­ming pools that left them vul­ner­a­ble to drown­ing in­ci­dents. Most of th­ese chil­dren didn’t have swim­ming skills,” says Robert Mu­laudzi, a Joburg Emer­gency Ser­vices spokesper­son.


“Most peo­ple think drown­ing is this dra­matic Hol­ly­wood scene, where the vic­tims are scream­ing and try­ing to breathe. That is rarely the case. A child who drowns nor­mally drowns qui­etly and you re­ally only re­alise they’ve drowned once it’s too late,” stresses Robert Daniels, a Western Cape Emer­gency Ser­vices spokesper­son.

This hap­pened to a Cape Town mother of a two-year-old boy who ac­ci­den­tally drowned in the fam­ily pool. The mother, a blog­ger, Jane Fraser de­tails how she had left her son in their din­ing room, and a minute later, he wasn’t there. She looked out at the swim­ming pool and spot­ted him sunk to the bot­tom. Af­ter an hour of try­ing to per­form CPR on the child, he was de­clared dead at the hos­pi­tal. She also re­mem­bers spot­ting his favourite toy float­ing in the pool later that night.

“How can that hap­pen so fast!? How can the child who’d stayed pinned to me in bliss­ful lov­ing am­i­ca­bil­ity all day, telling me ev­ery thought and feel­ing, just wan­der off like that?” she writes.

Don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the power of wa­ter. Large bod­ies of wa­ter, like the ocean, lakes and ponds, are un­pre­dictable. Wa­ter lev­els can rise quickly or a cur­rent can wash over you. It can gen­er­ally do a lot of harm if it gets into your res­pi­ra­tory sys­tem – through your nose or your mouth.


Thabiso Sik­wane, ra­dio per­son­al­ity and swim­ming teacher, also had a neardrown­ing in­ci­dent, which hap­pened when she was seven years old. She has since been keen to learn, as well as teach oth­ers, to swim.

She gives the fol­low­ing ad­vice on wa­ter safety:

At home:

If you have a pool at home or in the com­plex, make sure it’s cov­ered. “It’s ac­tu­ally ir­re­spon­si­ble to not have it cov­ered. Even if the pool is just there and not in use, drain it but still keep it safe (cov­ered),” she says. Wa­ter basins ac­count for a lot of ac­ci­dents or deaths in younger kids. Make sure your child is never left unat­tended when you have vol­umes of wa­ter around – whether in a wash basin or bath. Rather ig­nore the call if your phone rings while you have wa­ter near the baby.

When there’s a pool party at home, re­mem­ber that al­co­hol and wa­ter don’t mix. Al­co­hol can im­pair your judge­ment and senses, pos­ing a dan­ger in case of an emer­gency. Or even be a cause of ac­ci­dents. Never use in­flat­able wings, tubes or other float­ing aids as a pro­tec­tive mea­sure.

In pub­lic pools, beaches or ho­tels:

By the beach, never let chil­dren go near wa­ter with­out an adult su­per­vis­ing – even if there’s a life­guard on duty.

Make sure your chil­dren lis­ten to life­guard warn­ings – there’s a rea­son why they’re there. When you’re by a pub­lic or ho­tel pool, make sure you un­der­stand how deep it is be­fore­hand. Ask which is the shal­low and deep end. When you are by a river or stream, use a stick to gauge the depth of the river, al­though it’s now ad­vis­able to swim in those ar­eas. Swim­ming lessons are still seen as a ‘rich peo­ple’ ac­tiv­ity, and even those who can af­ford it see it as a ‘grudge pur­chase’. “Put some money away and save for swim­ming lessons if you can – it’s that im­por­tant,” Sik­wane says, adding that both you and your child min­der should learn how to swim, which can help re­duce the risk of chil­dren drown­ing.

* Name changed

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