There are wonderful theories about how we should end drowning. Everyone should have one-on-one swim lessons with a qualified instructor. Every pool should be fenced. Every potentially dangerous body of water should be fenced with warning signs that the public obeys. Parents should supervise their children at all times near water. Approved lifejackets should be worn whenever near water.
And then there is reality.
Swimming lessons are still an economic luxury to the children most at risk of drowning, both in terms of age and geography. Children climb fences. It is impossible to fence 70% of the earth’s surface. Toddlers are as ingenious as Houdini when it comes to escaping supervision. Approved life vests are expensive and let’s not even talk about cultural norms where it isn’t ‘cool’ or ‘macho’ to wear a lifejackets (yes guys, you know who I’m talking about.)
A community co-ordinator and former commercial fisherman in New Zealand has embarked on a controversial program, making custom-made non-regulation lifejackets for Polynesian men out of locally-sourced materials. You can learn more here.
A couple of key points leapt out at me as I read the article. First and foremost, the importance of having an understanding of the local culture - an anthropological viewpoint. The inventor went straight to the crux of the issue - how to get the guys to wear the lifejackets. His answer? He plans to hold classes where women can make the vests for the men in their family. Because, “if the wife makes it, they’ll wear it.” Absolutely brilliant observation. Let me repeat that, brilliant observation - no matter how much we mandate our amazing theories and solutions, if we don’t figure out how to get people to comply, it’s as effective as leaving the lifejacket in the boat locker.
Second key point - he identified an economically (and environmentally) sound way of making lifejackets using locally sourced materials. I’ve heard complaints about the unrealistic cost to low-income countries of critical water safety tools, like lifejackets, rescue tubes and rescue boards. What if we had a program in each country that provided students with the basic parameters and challenged them to create equipment out of easily attainable local materials? If the resulting products were also 'green', either from using sustainable natural materials (bamboo?) or emptying landfills, I'd guess we could easily find financial backing to produce the resulting products. Added bonus, enlisting students would also start raising awareness about the need for water safety and local small businesses be created to meet the new demand with their products. Technology is changing all the time, but the best technology in the world only works if it’s used, so let’s figure out how to marry theory and reality.