Rivers continue to be one of the riskiest environments for drowning in New Zealand. For the last five years (2018 – 2022) one-quarter (25%) of all preventable drowning occurred in rivers (WSNZ, 2023). In the Auckland region in the same period, drowning in rivers comprised 15% of all preventable drowning.
DPA was commissioned by Hamilton City Council to undertake a research study on the Waikato River including hazard assessments, behavioural observations, and interviews with those displaying risky behaviours. Outcomes from the hazard assessment include clearing out debris from the site and empowering local people to intervene if they see a visitor about to do something dangerous at their river or waterfall to prevent drowning or other forms of harm. A total of 175 observations were undertaken at five sites. One-half (52%) of all visitors were observed being in the water, most were male (63%) or aged under 15 years (61%). Interviews with those displaying risky behaviours reported a likely overestimation of water competence, an underestimation of risk together with a prevalence of unsafe attitudes. Hamilton City Council is working to action some of the recommendations already by working with DPA to update signage and undertake a trial with public rescue equipment.
Rivers are a popular venue for swimming and aquatic recreation. A New Zealand study of tourists showed that almost one third (28%) of New Zealand residents and one fifth (21%) of international tourists had swum in a river in the previous 12 months (Moran & Ferner, 2017).
Rivers often seem benign, and it is easy to underestimate the power and force of the water in rivers. It is important to develop water competencies to be safer in rivers.
Increased danger occurs when rivers, creeks and streams flood. A small rise in the water level can dramatically change the flow and speed of the river and debris and faster flowing currents can cause banks to become unstable.
Rivers are also dangerous for trampers. Crossing rivers is the second highest cause of tramper fatalities in New Zealand. Since 2007, there have been 21 river crossing fatalities, and 14 of these were related to tramping.
The following research articles provide further information.
Stanley, T., Carmine, J., & Moran, K. (2023). Waikato River – Hazard Assessments, Behaviours, and Factors that may Encourage Risky Behaviours. Report to Hamilton City Council.
Peden, A. E., Franklin, R. C., & Leggat, P. A. (2020). Developing drowning prevention strategies for rivers through the use of a modified Delphi process. Injury prevention, 26(3), 240-247.
Aghababaeian, H., Ostadtaghizadeh, A., Kiarsi, M., Yazdi, F., Ahvazi, L. A., Soleimani, S. Z., & Khajavi, S. (2022). Drowning prevention strategies in rivers: a systematic review. Journal of injury and violence research, 14(4 Suppl 2).
Peden, A. E., Willcox‐Pidgeon, S. M., Scarr, J. P., & Franklin, R. C. (2020). Comparing rivers to lakes: Implications for drowning prevention. Australian journal of rural health, 28(6), 568-578.
Moran Ph D, K., & Ferner, D. (2017). Water safety and aquatic recreation among international tourists in New Zealand. International journal of aquatic research and education, 10(1), 5.
Peden, A. E., Franklin, R. C., & Leggat, P. (2017). Preventing river drowning deaths: Lessons from coronial recommendations. Health Promotion Journal of Australia.
Peden, A. E., Franklin, R. C., & Leggat, P. A. (2016). Fatal river drowning: the identification of research gaps through a systematic literature review. Injury Prevention, injuryprev-2015.