24/03/2013 15:47 GMT | Updated 23/05/2013 06:12 BST

A Vaccine Against Drowning - Lifeguards and Swimming Lessons Can Keep Africa's Children Afloat

Drowning is a leading cause of death and claims over one million lives per year. The majority are children. In Africa, most drownings go unrecorded and there is a startling lack of research into the scale of the drowning epidemic on the continent.

When I heard about the eight little boys drowned off a beach suburb of Dakar last August, I wasn't shocked. It was just the latest in a long line of drowning fatalities along this wild and unmanned coast, another small, sad news-in-brief story in L'Observateur. The boys, all aged eight and nine, had been playing on the shoreline when they were dragged out to sea by a strong rip current. None of them could swim. By the time the emergency services arrived, it was too late. Had there been a lifeguard service, the children would probably have survived.

In October 2011, while working as a journalist in Dakar, the capital of Senegal in West Africa, I researched a story about a group of lifeguards at Yoff, one of the only beaches in this ocean-cradled capital city to have such a service. The maîtres nageurs sauveteurs, many of them volunteers or drafted from the fire service, told me of the overwhelming drowning problem along the coast of this part of West Africa; of the multiple fatalities that occur every year in the pounding surf and treacherous currents and of the efforts their small service is doing to address the issue in their beach community.

Back in the United Kingdom, a conversation with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) progressed what might have remained as a random meeting into something extraordinary. The two supervisors of the Yoff lifeguard team were invited to attend a bespoke RNLI training course - called Future Leaders in Lifesaving ( ) - at the charity's headquarters in Poole in August 2012, along with delegates of lifeguard teams from several other developing countries. They learnt how to manage and develop their own lifesaving organisation. Two RNLI trainers then travelled to Dakar in December to train all the lifeguards from Yoff and some from nearby beach, Ngor.

The scheme was a resounding success. The lifeguards, all of them dedicated, passionate and talented, quickly picked up the RNLI's techniques and honed their existing skills in identifying causes of drowning, the role of a lifeguard and the equipment needed to run a lifesaving service. Pledges were made on both sides to continue the development of the service and the second Future Leaders in Lifesaving programme will take place at RNLI HQ in July.

I was lucky enough to be in Senegal during the two weeks training in December, and while researching the drowning issue, heard much about the problem. An interview with the very dignified Batir Sow, 47, whose four year-old son Mohammed drowned last summer off a stretch of unsurveilled beach in Dakar, was particularly harrowing. Little Mohammed loved the water, but like most children and adults in Dakar, could not swim. One afternoon, Mohammed trotted off to the beach and never returned.

"The next day," recounts Batir, "the police commander told me they'd found a body at Layenne Yoff, and I knew it was my son."

School in Senegal is not mandatory; let alone swimming lessons. The few lifeguards that there are may be willing (they can often be found giving impromptu swimming lessons to kids), but they lack time, funds, training, state support, floats and access to swimming pools in which to teach. There are few private swimming teachers and needless to say, poor parents cannot afford to spend an extra £10 a month on sending their children to private swimming lessons.

Batir talks movingly about his son's drowning, stressing the need in Dakar for children to learn to swim. "Dakar is a place of fishermen," he says, "and the sea is, frankly, all we have. We love the sea. So we have to find solutions for schools and how to teach children to swim. When summer comes and you go to the beach, you see a crazy scene - there are over 4000 people at the beach, and among them only 200 people who can swim - it's so dangerous."

"People are dying on the beaches and it's mainly children aged seven to 16 years old, because they can't swim," adds Ibrahima Fall, a volunteer lifeguard from Yoff. "The majority of drownings occur in summer as it's the holidays. Children can't swim and aren't familiar with the currents or the waves, but they desperately want to be in the water. They see no danger."

The sentiment is one echoed all the way down the West African coast, particularly in the increasingly populated capitals of Freetown, Conakry, Monrovia; Abidjan, Accra and Douala. A burgeoning population who cannot swim, coupled with un-lifeguarded beaches pounded by the great, fierce Atlantic is a certain recipe for drowning. Nor is the problem limited to the coasts. In Africa, lakes, ponds and rivers are used daily for drinking water or for washing dishes and bathing. These become high-risk activities if a person is unable to swim or survive in water, and can be particularly perilous during periods of extreme weather and flooding. Despite a common perception of Africa as a 'dry continent', villages are often built within close proximity of rivers, beaches or lakes to take advantage of an accessible water supply. From the still blue ocean off Zanzibar to the Atlantic cities of the west, via the lakes and rivers of the great interior, drowning is blighting the African continent.

The work done so far by the RNLI and other organisations such as the International Surf Lifesaving Association (ISLA), which has just launched a 'drowning tracker' tool ( designed to help people record worldwide drownings, is a positive step to address a problem that is barely recognised on the international development agenda. This despite the fact that globally, drowning is a leading cause of death and claims over one million lives per year. The majority are children. In Africa, most drownings go unrecorded and there is a startling lack of research into the scale of the drowning epidemic on the continent. What we do know is that over 97% of drowning deaths occur in low and middle income countries, but despite the scale of the problem, the problem is barely recognised - a hidden disaster.

Now that lifeguarding services are being established in Dakar and elsewhere in Africa, the next stage of the water safety campaign is to develop a system for teaching children to swim. Recent evidence from Asia has shown that giving aquatic survival lessons to children over five years is an effective intervention against fatal drowning, significantly reducing the risk by over 85%. As water-related activities in Africa are very similar to those in Asia, we can assume that the protective effect of survival against drowning would be the same in the African context. And of course, the concept is beautifully simple; teach a child to swim and he or she will swim for life, passing on the skill to others. Swimming becomes, in effect, a 'vaccine' against drowning.

For these reasons, the RNLI is now working with partners to develop an open-source aquatic survival 'toolkit' to make available to schools, swimming teachers and other local organisations in Africa, to provide a resource for teaching children to swim in a variety of different environments. Whether it teaches ten children or a million children to swim, I believe the new Aquatic Survival project can only help to address an African development issue that is, at the moment, largely ignored. Its message, to give local people the tools to implement the preventative measure of swimming skills alongside the curative measure of effective lifeguarding services, is a strong, sustainable approach. And the voice of support is undeniable on the ground. For it is Batir's words that always come echoing back to me.

"This is something that, if I were the President of Senegal, I'd sign the paper today," the heartbroken father told me. "Help us to swim, so that we can help others, because I don't want anyone else to ever have to feel what I felt that day when my son drowned."