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Despite being in lockdown for part of 2020 New Zealand’s provisional drowning toll is only just below the five year average.

The provisional preventable* drowning toll for 2020 is 74 (the five year average 2015 -2019 is 81). Drowning is the leading cause of recreational death and the third highest cause of accidental death in New Zealand. 

“Every one of these preventable fatalities leaves a family and a community devastated,” says spokesperson Sheridan Bruce.

The COVID-19 level 4 lockdown ran between March 25 and April 27 with boaties ordered out of the water until level 2 on May 13. In 2020 Boating/Paddling fatalities are down at 10 from 19 in 2019, noting however that there’s also been a large increase in water related recreational sales as New Zealanders flocked to the water and enjoyed domestic tourism.

“We really want to see people going out on boats and paddle craft with their lifejackets on. The data is clear - this simple act saves lives,” says Bruce.

“Taking two forms of water proof communication is the other key message. A VHF radio attached to your person and a distress beacon so you can get help if you need it.”

Swimming was again the deadliest recreational activity with 23 fatalities and rivers the deadliest environment with 24 just above beaches on 23. “Over-estimating ability and under-estimating risk continues to cost lives. New Zealanders need to respect the water and understand the risks,” says Sheridan Bruce.

“Everyone needs to take some personal responsibility for their safety when it comes to recreation in or on the water. I must pay tribute to the tireless work of our frontline rescue services Surf Life Saving New Zealand and Coastguard New Zealand who every year save countless lives,” says Bruce.

The most concerning statistic for the year is the over representation of Māori with 22 fatalities (30% of the preventable total despite making up just 16.5% of the total population). The five year average is 16.

“We are focused on turning around these statistics for Māori by investing in Kaupapa Māori water safety initiatives that are designed and led by Māori and acknowledge the deep connection Māori have with wai. Kia Maanu Kia Ora funded by ACC is focused on bringing these numbers down,” says Bruce.

Underwater fatalities also continue to be an area of concern with 12 in 2020 following 11 in 2019 and a five year average of eight (2015 – 2019). “This is a trend we also want to quickly bring to a halt. We are working closely with NZ Underwater Association on education and launching targeted social marketing campaigns to try and change the behaviour of underwater diving enthusiasts,” says Sheridan Bruce.

There’s also been an increase in the number of young people involved in drowning fatalities with the 15 to 24 year old cohort having the highest number of preventable fatalities with 15 in 2020, up from 11 in 2019 and eight in 2018.

“This is a tragic reminder of the importance of learning water safety and survival skills. Being able to assess risk and make smart decisions around water. This is why we continue to focus and try to grow our investment in Water Skills for Life which is further supported by ACC. Delivery of this world leading aquatic education initiative for children in years one to eight at primary school is also supported by Swimming New Zealand,” says Bruce.

To learn more or get your primary school involved go to

There were 12 preventable fatalities involving females in 2020 - the lowest total in five years and well below the average of 16.

Four under-fives lost their lives which is a drop from seven in 2019. “Constant active adult supervision is the only way to keep babies and toddlers safe around water. Keep them within arms-reach. It takes less than 30 seconds for a child to drown,” says Bruce.

Of the 20 non-recreational fatalities (immersion incidents) three were people rescuing others, four were under-fives, five were the result of slips/falls, three were crossing rivers, two were swept out to sea by rogue waves and three were in baths.

“Again a tragic reminder of the importance of being cautious around water. There is always risk and water safety is about considering that risk and mitigating it. Remember the water safety code: Be prepared, look out for yourself and each other. Be aware of the dangers and know your limits,” says Sheridan Bruce.

Full 2020 provisional data breakdown here: The 2020 Provisionsal Drowning Report

For media enquiries please call Ben Christie on 021770285 or email


*Preventable drowning fatalities are those where water safety sector intervention could have had an influence (for example where the victim was boating, swimming, diving) while non-preventable drowning deaths include events such as suicides,

homicides and vehicle accidents (where water safety education and activity would not have prevented the death).

Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) gives no warranty as to the correctness of the information or the data provided as it is supplied to WSNZ by third parties not under its control.  While WSNZ is satisfied as to its accuracy for the purposes for which it is supplied to it, WSNZ shall not be liable for any loss or damage arising directly or indirectly from the use of any data supplied.  All reported statistics are provisional.  All DrownBase™ statistics are reported as death by drowning.

Lockdown barely dents drowning stats in 2020

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