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This year, the NSRI’s Water Safety project reached a momentous milestone: 3.5 million students educated! And Executive Director of Drowning Prevention, Dr Jill Fortuin, has no intention of slowing down…

Drowning is in the top five causes of accidental death in South Africa, and an estimated 30-40% of these fatalities are children younger than 15. Rural, underserved communities in particular are vulnerable to drownings in farm dams, rivers and streams. Without formal swimming skills, people too often find themselves in trouble.

It’s these conditions that have driven Water Safety instructors and team leaders, headed up by NSRI Drowning Prevention Director Dr Jill Fortuin, to realise the vision of their department and achieve a truly remarkable milestone – the instruction of 3.5 million children under the NSRI’s Water Safety Education project.

“It feels fantastic to have provided so many lessons, and to know that we are making a difference in the lives of so many people,” says Dr Fortuin, who recently received Lifesaving South Africa’s Long Service Award.

It hasn’t been an easy journey, she adds. Acquiring the necessary resources has been a major challenge, as has the lack of a comprehensive list of contact details for places of learning. Negotiating with those in charge about the value of the lessons has also proven difficult at times, and – of course – Covid-19 restrictions didn’t help.

Yet Dr Fortuin and her team remain optimistic, and certainly aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. A cursory glance at the project’s records show an impressive uptick in momentum since the project’s inception, which brought water safety education to 6 500 students in 2006; 105 025 students in 2012; and 574 099 students in 2019. For obvious reasons, progress slowed in 2020/2021.

“Our target for 2022 is 600 000 students, and in 2023 it is set at 750 000. We would like to reach 1 million students per year to attain our ultimate goal of educating every single child of school-going age in South Africa about drowning prevention.”

The lessons taught to students are tailored to each age group, and consist of a story that highlights the importance of drowning prevention skills, and the seriousness of not being safe in and around water. Depending on the age group, lessons may include basic information such as never swimming or playing near water alone, or simple bystander CPR.

“At Vlottenburg Primary School in Stellenbosch, a teacher and her class were so enthused by the idea that an empty 2 litre bottle could be used as a rescue aid, that they went on to design their own 2 litre bottle rescue aid which included a rope, which children are encourage to take with them when going swimming or crossing river,” Dr Fortuin enthuses.

If Dr Fortuin and her team’s current trajectory is any indication, she will be reaching her goal of 1 million children educated per year very soon – saving countless lives in the process.

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