Drowning: A silent killer

Nurturing children’s development and reducing child drownings in Bangladesh

The burden of drowning occurs in all regions of the world, disproportionately affecting low- and middle-income countries. Bangladesh has not escaped the burden of this silent killer, with children under five years of age facing the greatest risk. We live with and among water and recognize the benefits that come with the abundance of water.  At the same time, drowning is the leading cause of death among children ages 1-4 in Bangladesh, responsible for 43% of all deaths among children in this age group.

Shockingly, 80% of drowning deaths among children under five occur 20 metres from their homes -- most often in the morning hours when parents are occupied with work and chores.

There is a solution to this crisis: Community-based child care centres.  A study supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies demonstrated that children in community-based care centres experienced up to an 88% reduction in drowning deaths.  

Such centres have other benefits. They free parents -- mothers especially -- to handle housework without having to worry about their children and allows them to pursue additional economic opportunities as well. This includes the possibility of staffing the child care centres or other work outside of the home.  

We also know that child care can be vital to early childhood development. Children are whole beings, with an integrated set of care needs. Early childhood is the time in life when the foundations for physical growth, mental development, ability to survive and thrive, and life-long learning are engraved. 

Fulfilment of children’s fundamental rights -- including food and nutrition, shelter, protection, safety and security, education, and health -- is imperative. As the architects of Bangladesh’s future, children deserve our strongest commitment and effort from families, government agencies, the private sector, and communities. 

The government of Bangladesh is taking action to protect children from drowning and ensure they reach their full potential.  

In February 2022, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC), chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, approved a three-year duration early childhood development project titled Integrated Community Based Centre for Child Care, Protection and Swim-Safe Facilities that will build on what we know will save children’s lives and put them on track to thrive. 

Bangladesh Shishu Academy under the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs will implement the project in line with the comprehensive Early Childhood Care and Development Policy 2013, with technical assistance from US-based Bloomberg Philanthropies and the UK-based Royal National Lifeboat Institution. 

The project will establish 8,000 integrated child care centres serving 200,000 children in age group 1-5, recruit and train 16,000 caregivers, teach survival swimming skills to more than 360,000 children ages 6-10 years and include 1,600 swim instructors, in its duration. Integrated child care centres will be established in communities in high-risk areas across 16 of the country’s 64 districts, in 45 upazilas, in partnership with NGOs/CBOs. 

These actions help Bangladesh meet many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals -- especially those related to education, health, and women’s empowerment. And in doing so, they are an important part of the country’s progress toward becoming a middle-income nation.

Bangladesh is not alone in confronting the terrible burden of child drowning. In at least 48 countries, drowning is one of the top five causes of death for children under the age of 15. Last year, Bangladesh co-sponsored a United Nations General Assembly resolution designating July 25 as World Drowning Prevention Day, to be observed annually. 

Knowledge of the heartbreakingly high numbers of preventable child drowning deaths drove Bangladesh to lead on the issue in the global arena and to call on other countries to do the same.

And by scaling up proven approaches to preventing child drowning, the government of Bangladesh, with its partners, is modelling steps other countries can take.  

We can prevent drowning. We can join efforts for children’s comprehensive care needs. Integrated child care centresare an investment in children with tangible benefits for them, their families and communities. It will be through our shared initiative -- across government, with communities, and with national and international partners -- that we achieve what we know is possible. 

The future of our children requires it. 

Md Shariful Islam is Director General, Bangladesh Shishu Academy. Kelly Larson is Director of Drowning Prevention and Road Safety Programs, Bloomberg Philanthropies, US.