Bangladesh facing ‘epidemic’ of child drownings

Special Crisscrossed with rivers and canals, Bangladesh has one of the world’s highest drowning rates for under-fives. (Photo by Munir uz Zaman / AFP)
Crisscrossed with rivers and canals, Bangladesh has one of the world’s highest drowning rates for under-fives. (Photo by Munir uz Zaman / AFP)
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Updated 11 February 2022

Bangladesh facing ‘epidemic’ of child drownings

Bangladesh facing ‘epidemic’ of child drownings
  • Dozens of Bangladeshi under-5s drown daily with incidents thought to have doubled during COVID-19 lockdown period

DHAKA: It was a late December morning when Fahima Akhter saw her youngest son for the last time. Two-year-old Omar Faruque was in front of the family home, playing with his cousins. His mother had been watching him but became distracted by household chores. Minutes later, the youngster had disappeared.

“I live in a joint family with my in-laws. It’s a 10-member family. There were some other family members in the yard also,” Akhter told Arab News. “No one noticed when little Faruque suddenly disappeared and walked to a nearby pond. It’s a five-minute walking distance for a toddler. While cooking in the kitchen, I heard a loud noise as if something fell into the water.”

She rushed to the pond only to find her son’s body floating in the water.

“We could have prevented the drowning of Faruque if we had built a fence on the way to the pond. It was a very costly lesson and irreparable loss,” she said.

Akhter is one of thousands of Bangladeshi parents to have lost children to unintentional drowning last year. Crisscrossed with rivers and canals, Bangladesh has one of the world’s highest drowning rates for under-fives.

Dr. Aminur Rahman, deputy executive director at the Center for Injury Prevention and Research Bangladesh, estimated that the number of incidents could have more than doubled during the coronavirus pandemic, as lockdowns had forced many daycare centers to close.

“Earlier also the drowning of children was like an epidemic,” he said. “But it was increased during COVID days since schools were closed and children remained unguarded in many cases.”

The latest government data, compiled in 2016, showed that more than 30 toddlers had drowned in Bangladesh every day. While no nationwide survey has been conducted for the past six years, the injury prevention center last year recorded 19 child drowning deaths only among the kids attending its nurseries in two districts of the southern Barisal region. “Before COVID-19, the number was seven,” Rahman added.

A recent study by Somashte, a Bangladeshi media monitoring NGO, also showed a sharp increase in drowning incidents involving children aged below five. Based on newspaper reports, it estimated the number had more than doubled since 2020.

Little has been done to address the situation since the 2016 national survey revealed the scale of the problem.

“Since 2016, we didn’t do much to prevent the drowning of the children,” Rahman said, adding that efforts should be made to start building fences around bodies of water.

“It will help a lot in reducing the drowning incidents among children.”

He said programs to teach lifesaving techniques should also be introduced throughout the country.

“I have noticed most of the drowning victims are brought dead to healthcare centers in remote areas of the country as it takes several hours to transport the patients,” Rahman added. “If cardiopulmonary resuscitation could be given to the victims immediately after the rescue, many lives could have been saved.”

Authorities say they are planning to launch a pilot scheme for drowning prevention this year.

“After pneumonia, drowning is the main cause of our children’s deaths below the age of five. So, we want to eradicate this problem from the country,” Mohammed Tariqul Islam Chowdhury, early childhood development specialist at the Bangladesh Shishu Academy, the national academy for children that will be implementing the program, told Arab News.

“We have been working on this project since 2018. Now everything is at the final stage. We are expecting to receive approval for the three-year project from the executive committee of the National Economic Council at any time this month.”