Respect the river this Christmas

Volunteer rescue diver Peter Wright OAM is asking people to stay safe around waterways this summer.

Volunteer rescue diver Peter Wright OAM has issued a stern warning before Christmas asking locals to respect the river as we enter the most dangerous time of year for fatal drownings.

For more than 40 years, Mr Wright has recovered the bodies of more than 50 people who have fatally drowned in inland waterways.

“This year there will be more drownings, there is no doubt about it, but the message is, don’t let it be your family or friends that end up on the front page of newspaper for being another tragic victim,” Mr Wright said.

“This Christmas and over summer we want people to stay safe around the river and other waterways. Wear a life jacket if you’re on the water, supervise children and please don’t mix alcohol consumption with the river.

“The Royal Life Saving Society has plenty of evidence showing the number of drownings that occur predominantly in males when mixing alcohol and water activities.

“Please don’t jump off the bridge in Corowa. The water isn’t deep under the bridge and there are often snags and debris sitting just below the water. We have had two drownings in recent times from people jumping off the bridge. Jumping and rope swings are a recipe for disaster.”

Mr Wright said 99 per cent of all drownings in inland waterways are avoidable.

“The river is beautiful but it’s deceptive. The people most at risk are the ones who are unaware of the dangers,” he said.

“The theme with most of the drownings in my logbook is the families’ disbelief that it could have been their loved one.”

Research from by Royal Life Saving Australia recognises the Murray River as the number one river drowning black spot in Australia accounting for 27 per cent of all fatal drownings.

With the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) recently declaring a La Niña event, the outlook for summer in Eastern Australia is likely to be wetter than average. With that comes rising river levels and increased debris flowing along waterways.

Dr Amy Peden, an injury prevention researcher at the School of Population Health, UNSW Medicine & Health said fluctuating river levels can mean conditions can vary hour-by-hour, resulting in new debris or snags being washed downstream.

“It can also impact the speed with which the water is flowing as well as an increased risk of flooding,” Dr Peden said.

“Every year more than 10 people die in flood-related incidents, some after intentionally entering floodwaters. It is never safe to enter floodwaters, be it on foot, in a vehicle or on a bike, and they should be avoided at all costs. This includes not allowing children to play in floodwaters or near drains.”

According to the Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report 2021, rivers remain the leading location for drowning with deaths increasing by 3 per cent this year compared with the 10-year average.

“We see extremely elevated rates of river drowning in rural areas compared to the city – up to 29 times the risk of drowning in a river in an area classified as very remote when compared to areas classified as major cities. With rivers, there is also the added element of flood risk and changes to the river environment with debris, in addition to fast-flowing water,” Dr Peden said.

“And finally, one of the biggest issues we see in cases of river drowning in Australia is alcohol consumption. My research shows elevated blood alcohol concentrations are a real issue at rivers.

“On average, adult river drowning victims who had been drinking were four times the upper legal limit for driving a car (a BAC of 0.20% or higher) at their time of death.

“Consuming such significant amounts of alcohol around the water understandably increases drowning risk and was often involved in fatal incidents as a result of falls into water or jumping into the water from trees or bridges.”

Royal Life Saving advises people to:

Avoid alcohol around water. Stay out of the water if alcohol has been consumed. It is best to participate in aquatic activities before drinking any alcohol and not re-enter the water afterwards.

Wear a lifejacket when boating or using watercraft. In the case of an emergency, wearing a lifejacket can increase a person’s chance of survival by 50%.

Avoid swimming or recreating alone. This means that there will be someone around to call for help, if required.