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The 2021 Drowning Report released by Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) today has the provisional preventable[1] drowning toll for last year at 74, the same as the previous year, despite much of the country being in lockdown.

While the toll is 7.5 per cent down on the 2015-2019 five-year average (80), drowning is the leading cause of recreational death and the third highest cause of accidental death in New Zealand.

WSNZ’s Chief Executive, Daniel Gerrard, said: “Every preventable death is devasting to a family/whanau and the community.

“Up until December, 2021 was on track to have a lower-than-average year, but 20 deaths in December saw us have as many drownings as the year before, and the highest December toll since 1996.”

Māori and men were both over-represented: 31 per cent of the fatalities were Māori (23 deaths), despite Māori comprising just 16.5 per cent of the total population, and 84 per cent male (62). Significantly, 96 per cent (22) of Māori drowning deaths and 100 per cent of the Pacifica deaths (5) were men. People of Asian ethnicity accounted for 16 per cent of deaths (12).

Auckland, Waikato and Wellington each had 12 drowning deaths in 2021. Auckland and Waikato fatalities were commonly at beaches; Wellington’s incidents more commonly occurred in the harbour. Auckland fatalities are down 20 per cent from  2020 and down 20 per cent on the five-year average, the lowest since 2013 (9 deaths).

Conversely, the Waikato total of 12 is up 50 per cent on 2020 and 20 per cent on the five-year average, and Wellington’s total of 12 deaths is up 140 per cent on the prior year and 100 per cent of the five-year average – the highest number of fatalities for Wellington since 1998.

Swimming resulted in the most drowning fatalities in 2021 accounting for 31 per cent (23), up 28 per cent of the five-year average and the highest Swimming total since 2016. Most of these occurred at rivers (8) or beaches (6).

The 18 Boating deaths accounted for 24 per cent of the year's drowning toll, up 80 per cent from the prior year’s 10 deaths but similar to the five-year average (17). The majority of boating incidents occurred in tidal waters (12). Boating drowning fatalities were more likely to involve people 45+ years (72%).

Underwater activities (Scuba Diving, Snorkelling, Free Diving) accounted for 11 per cent (8) of the drowning deaths, down 33 per cent on the 2020 total (12) and equal to the five-year average (8). All these fatalities were between 35 and 54 years, and 75 per cent were Māori.

While the drowning toll last year for those aged between 15-24 and 25-34 years maintained a downward trend: drowning of those aged 15-24 (7) was half the 2020 total (15) and the five-year average (14). The 25-34 age group (6) was the same as 2020 and half the five-year average (13), and the 35-44 age group (8) was also down on 2020 (13) and the five-year average (11).

However, drowning fatalities amongst older age groups increased. Those 45+ increased between 23 per cent and 50 per cent from 2020 totals. Likewise, the five-year averages: 45-54 years (14 deaths) were up from both 2020 and the five-year average total of 11; 55-64 years (15) were up from 10 in 2020 and a five-year average of 11; and the 65+ age group (16), up from 8 in 2020 and a five-year average of 13.

Males constituted 84 per cent of total drowning fatalities (62) in 2021,  similar to 2020 and slightly up on the five-year average (81%). Females had comparable numbers to males only in the younger 0-5- and 5-14-year age groups. Men dominate the older age groups.

WSNZ’s Chief Executive, Daniel Gerrard, said: “Despite much of the country being in lockdown for a lengthy period again last year, drowning contributed to 74 fatalities. These tragedies could and should not happen and are a tragic reminder of the importance of being cautious around water.

“Our drowning toll is something every New Zealander should see as a national disgrace and one we all have a responsibility to address. We all need to make better decisions around water.

“Remember the water safety code. Be prepared, watch out for yourself and each other, be aware of the dangers and know your limits.”

The full 2021 Provisional Drowning Report and data is available on the WSNZ website, see:  



[1] *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).

Seventy-four New Zealanders drowned in 2021 - despite lockdowns

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