Why the topic of drowning prevention needs to be brought to the surface

Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Oct 10 2019 02:34 AM | Updated as of Oct 10 2019 12:32 PM

Ederic Eder and his mother, Belen. Courtesy of Ederic Eder's blog

DURBAN, South Africa—It happened 24 years ago.

Still the memories and pain immediately flood back to Ederic Eder’s mind, each time a maritime accident occurs in the Philippines.

Eder’s mother, Belen, should still be alive today if only the ferry boat she was on May 16, 1995, did not catch fire and sink.

That day, Belen was rushing back to Manila to bring Eder’s completed scholarship application to a private company and some money donated by their friends for Eder’s studies, when tragedy struck at sea between Lucena City and Marinduque.

Belen would still be alive if she hadn’t given her life jacket to another passenger, as they jumped to open water in the middle of that chaotic scene.

Belen and more than 60 other passengers drowned.

“When rescuers found mama’s body, she was clutching her bag that had the scholarship application forms and some cash, among other things,” Eder posted in a May 2006 blog post.

Eder’s experience is one of many cases of open-water death and drowning in general that could have been prevented if safety laws and policies are implemented properly.

“The government agencies must ensure the sea worthiness of the vessel,” Eder said.

“The no-overloading policy must be followed, whether on land or at sea. The ship's crew must heed PAGASA's warnings.The life jackets must be more than enough for the number of passengers, which must be properly listed on the manifesto.”

Sea accidents in the Philippines

This issue was, among others, at the center of the discussion in the World Conference on Drowning Prevention, a 3-day gathering organized by the World Health Organized this week in Durban.

The issue should be relevant to the Philippines, not only because it is surrounded by expansive bodies of water but also because it has seen many of its citizens die this way because of government or civic negligence.

Dr. Caroline Lukaszyk, WHO Consultant & Regional Data Coordinator Violence & Injury Prevention. Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News

Dr. Caroline Lukaszyk, who covers the Philippines as WHO consultant and regional data coordinator, believes that drowning brought about by faulty vessel operations can be prevented if maritime laws are adhered to.

“There were such a large number of policies and voice,” she said, “and the capacity wasn’t available to the implementation. There was so many in existence and there are so many omnipresent and the roles are important. But there are not enough people.”

Aside from sinking or capsizing ships, there are numerous related incidents of smaller scale ranging from swimmers and vacationers drowning in beaches or rivers to children near a pool of water not being attended to. 

In this conference, experts acknowledge that drowning is a global problem.

A WHO study in 2016 estimated that worldwide there are about 322,000 drowning deaths, equivalent to 1 fatality every 90 seconds.

A participant at the World Conference on Drowning Prevention 2019 in Durban, South Africa. Sherrie Ann Torres, ABS-CBN News

Drowning is described the “silent killer” and the third major global cause of death among children.

The WHO believes those numbers can be higher if incidents in far-flung areas are accounted for, as are other cases in which the injured eventually die.

The Philippines’ Department of Health (DOH) reported some 3,202 deaths due to drowning. 

Lukaszyk says that in the Philippines the fact that there is a surplus of government agencies and that their responsibilities overlap don’t help in mitigating drowning cases.

“There are so many agencies, so many government groups, so many suburbs. The government structure is extremely complex. And I think sometimes it makes difficult for policies to work together,” she said.

Before Congress went on a recess this month, at least two senators proposed to create a specific agency tasked to oversee the safety of all forms of public transportation and concerns in the country. 

Sen. Grace Poe, chairperson of the committee on public services, and Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr., head of the civil service, government reorganization and professional regulation, penned Committee Report No. 8, that seeks to create the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The recommendation stemmed from Senate Bill Nos.125 by Poe and 651 by Revilla.

The board’s main task is to “investigate all transportation accidents, determine compliance with safety standards, and conduct studies on safety and improvement.”

“The body will determine what can be done to improve regulations, training or certain aspects of the vehicle or the environment to prevent future accidents,” Poe said.

“The NTSB can save lives that should not be lost in the first place. It can avoid preventable accidents. It can avert injuries. It can keep properties intact. The NTSB is our road to safety.”

Once created, the board will have to authority to assess the public transportation practices and practices in the country.

The NTSB, with an initial funding of P50 million, can conduct independent investigations on air, highway, railroad, pipeline and maritime accidents with the result to be submitted to Congress within 60 days.

It will also be tasked to “gather, analyze and publish from time to time data and statistics on transportation crashes, accidents and incidents.”

Meanwhile, as the Senate lays down a proper system to avert related deaths, the conference here hopes to create more awareness on waterways safety, described in the event’s website as “a highly preventable public health challenge.”

“This biennial conference brings together the world’s foremost experts, research, systems and information on drowning prevention, rescue, lifesaving and water safety,” its website said. 

“The exchange, debate and development are designed to find ways to reduce death and injury in all aquatic environments worldwide.”