Ninety people died as a result of preventable drowning in 2023 in what Water Safety New Zealand called a “New Zealand disease”.

Of that number, 83% were men, and 58% were over the age of 45, according to provisional data from the last 12 months.

The figure is down from 2022 levels, which saw 94 people drown — but the advocacy group said this is nothing to celebrate.

Water Safety NZ called it a “sobering update”, highlighting the 90 preventable drownings remain “alarmingly above” the 10-year average.

They have labelled it as the “New Zealand disease”.

The numbers also reveal a spike in under-five drownings, with eight deaths — three more than the 10-year average of five preventable drownings.

Unintentional slips and falls caused 29 drownings, while swimming or “playing in the water” led to 19 drownings.

The number of drownings that involved a powered craft went down however, dropping to four — a decrease from the 10-year average of 11. There were 21 drownings related to powered craft in 2022.

“It is hoped that joint messages like those with Coastguard NZ’s ‘Just Wear It’ lifejacket campaign are beginning to be listened to,” WSNZ said.

Over the holiday period between December 22, 2023 and today, there were seven preventable drownings — all involving men.

Auckland saw a “worrying spike” of 26 preventable drownings last year, passing 2022’s figure of 17 and the 10-year average of 16.

WSNZ is calling for “intensified water safety measures in the region”.

“Clearly, Auckland’s growing population, larger participation rates and warmer climate impacts this number, but there is considerable and long-term rate payer investment that has gone into attempting to address this issue,” WSNZ chief executive Daniel Gerrard said.

“Perhaps now is the time to revisit how to support Aucklanders and Tāmaki Makaurau more effectively.”

In Waikato, there was a “dramatic” increase in drownings, with the region recording 16 in 2023.

Hawke’s Bay saw 12, three times higher than the average — which was partially attributed to flood-related incidents.

There was a massive decrease in drownings for Northland, which saw four in 2023 — a large drop from the 18 recorded in 2022.

“While it is too early to call, this decline indicates potential effectiveness in local approaches to water safety and a strong local push around behavioural change,” Gerrard said.

‘We all need to have a think’

Gerrard said campaigns that target men are needed to ensure New Zealand’s drowning rates go down.

“Increased resources are necessary to expand meaningful messaging to this hard-to-reach bunch of blokes.

“We all need to have a think about our choices and how this might impact those loved ones around us… just ‘have a hmmm’.”

Gerrard said aquatic literacy for children will also play a “key role” in ensuring every young person knows how to swim.

“It should be everyone’s basic human right to learn the essential life skill of water competence.”

He said being able to float and move in the water, along with a “basic understanding of our amazing waterways must be a minimum”.

WSNZ is now urging the government to “prioritise preventable drowning with the same level of focus as road fatalities”.

“This isn’t just about numbers; it’s about lives and communities,” Gerrard said.

“Our commitment to water safety must be unwavering, and it requires the collective effort of the entire nation.”

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