An increase in summer drownings across Australia

19 March 2021
86 people lost their lives to drowning in Australia last summer, an increase of 30% compared to the previous summer (2019/20). Here in Western Australia 11 people lost their lives, almost double the previous summer. Each death left families and communities devastated. 

Following a challenging year for all Australians, people were looking forward to spending time outdoors by the water with family and friends. Unfortunately, some of these trips ended in tragedy.

Nationally males accounted for 80% of deaths, while in WA that figure was a shocking 91%. Men being over-represented in drowning statistics is a worrying long-term trend. The largest number of deaths occurred among people aged 35-64 years (40%).

A majority of drowning deaths occured in coastal locations (57%), followed by inland waterways like rivers, creeks and streams (29%), home swimming pools (7%), and public pools (3%). 

COVID-19 restrictions during 2020 saw the closure of public swimming pools around the country. Many children missed months of swimming and water safety lessons, impacting their skill development and confidence in the water. Adults also missed out on popular recreation and exercise activities in the lead up to summer.

With travel restrictions limiting movement, many Australians holidayed locally over the summer break with drowning up in most States and Territories, including Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia. New South Wales recorded the largest number of deaths with 28 fatalities, followed by Queensland and Victoria with 20 deaths each.

Inland waterways accounted for 50% of drowning deaths in New South Wales and 100% of deaths in the Australian Capital Territory. Pleasingly, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia recorded zero deaths among children aged 0-17 years over the summer months.

Last summer, more than a quarter of people nationally drowned while swimming and recreating (28%). A similar proportion got into difficulty while participating in an ‘other’ activity (27%). These deaths included incidents while fishing and rock fishing, jumping into water and attempting a rescue.

To view the full Royal Life Saving Summer Drowning Report 2020-21 click here.

The Summer Drowning Toll is collated 2020/21 figures shown are derived from media reports only and as such, should be considered interim, pending the outcome of ongoing coronial investigations. The Toll is an important advocacy tool, providing timely and accurate information to policymakers, practitioners and journalists. Alongside other leading water safety organisations, Royal Life Saving will continue to raise awareness of drowning and share vital safety messages in the lead up to next summer.

You can help us as we work to reduce drowning across the Australian community by following these tips next time you visit your local waterway.

  • Always supervise children around water
  • Avoid alcohol around water
  • Wear a lifejacket when boating, using watercraft or rock fishing
  • Avoid swimming or recreating alone