Australian lifeguards to the rescue of Bangladesh

Lessons from imported experts help children beat biggest threat to their lives
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The Independent Online

In Bangladesh, bisected by some of the world's mightiest rivers and increasingly threatened by the impact of extreme weather, an age-old danger has emerged as the biggest threat to children – drowning.

Figures suggest that around 17,000 children drown in Bangladesh every year, proportionately more than anywhere else in the world, and experts say the problem will only increase as the incidence of typhoons, flooding and rising sea-levels – all associated with climate change – grows. Most of the children who drown perish within 20 metres of their homes.

Now aid workers are battling to reduce the toll by teaching children to swim. Instructors from Australia, a nation as famed for its lifeguards as Bangladesh has the misfortune to be famed for flooding, have been teaching swimming and life-saving techniques to Bangladeshis who then pass on the skills to children. Swimming classes are being held in makeshift bamboo pens that have been set up in murky ponds and canals.

"We are giving these children a vaccine against death," said Shahinur Alom, a community swimming instructor in the village of Golla Para, in central Bangladesh. "These children have so much potential. They could be doctors or presidents, but if for any reason they go to the water and drown they will just die... We are giving them a valuable lesson – how to swim. It gives them confidence. Before, some of the children were even too scared to come into the water."

Bangladesh, which sits on the Ganges delta, was once notorious for the threat to children from malnutrition, disease and diarrhoea. Experts say in recent years, efforts to target such dangers have had considerable success and that many of the country's "indicators" have improved. But as a result, the biggest single threat to children these days is from drowning, which accounts for more than 25 per cent of all child deaths.

Carel de Rooy, the Bangladesh head of Unicef, which is funding the programme, said the danger was only likely to get worse.

"Already there are 17,000 deaths from drowning every year – more than anywhere else" he said. "Bangladesh is very prone to water related emergencies such as floods and cyclones. It's likely that as a result of climate change, these things are going to be more frequent, more intense."

The country faces a number of threats from climate change. An increase in melting ice in the Himalayas is causing both a rise in sea levels and increased erosion as rivers flow faster. Some predictions have suggested that the country of 150 million people could lose up to 20 per cent of its land by 2030. By then up to 20 million people could have become climate-change refugees, forced to leave their flooded homes. More than a decade ago, half of Bhola Island, Bangladesh's biggest island, was engulfed by rising sea levels, forcing 500,000 people to flee.

Last week officials in the US concluded that global climate change will create profound challenges in the coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms and mass migration. One scenario studied at the National Defence University in Washington was a destructive flood in Bangladesh that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into India.

The Australian instructors who have been working in Bangladesh say they believe they have already had an impact. Justin Scarr, head of the Royal Life Saving Society Australia, said: "The reaction from people has been fabulous." And for one young girl, the lessons proved crucial. Ten-year-old Chaina, who took a life-saving class, told aid workers how she was able to use a bamboo pole to save her friends Liza, five, and three-year-old Khushi, after they fell into a pond near their homes. The parents of the two rescued children have now also decided to send them to a swimming class.

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