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MAV Opinion Editorial - Staying on top of water safety this summer

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January is usually the time many of us allocate for some much-needed respite, to enjoy catch-ups with family and friends and take the opportunity to explore the great outdoors and everything that Victoria’s regions have to offer.

This year feels a little different. We didn’t get to herald the new year as we normally would and there has been mounting concern in recent weeks about COVID-19 outbreaks across the state.

While there are many aspects of our daily lives that might feel or be different, one thing remains the same and that is the need to be vigilant around water.

We appreciate COVID-19 put a spanner in the works when it comes to thinking about water safety. Closed off beaches, cancelled swimming lessons and an overall decrease in exercise all unfortunately increased the likelihood of drownings across our state.

Some will also not yet have had the opportunity to reacclimatise themselves to safety around water.

But this is no time to be complacent. Being safe around water could save a life.

Every day, visitors flock to Victoria’s 811 kilometres of ocean beaches, 259 kilometres of bay beaches, 85,000 kilometres of rivers, 13,000 natural wetlands and 588 public and commercial swimming pools.

Many of these spaces are managed by local governments who help community members safely engage in recreational aquatic activities including swimming, boating, fishing and other leisure activities.

Sadly, the latest drowning statistics from Life Saving Victoria (LSV) reflect this. On 29 December, LSV reported 35 people lost their lives between 1 July to 28 December 2020. This is the worst six months from July to December Victoria has recorded since drowning records began.

Toddlers and children aged 0 – 14 are the most at risk with 12 recorded drownings or 34% of the six-month total. Although tragic, this data is not surprising with 145,000 children per week missing vital swimming lessons.

The Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) has continually advocated for mandatory registration and inspection regime for pools and spas. After consultation with councils, MAV made a submission on the Regulatory Impact Statement for Swimming Pool and Spa Safety Standards in September 2019.

New regulations were introduced on 1 December 2019 meaning owners must apply to register their existing pool or spa with their local council.

During a COVID-19 year, councils have still undertaken inspections and reminded their communities to register their pool before the deadline so there are more protections over the summer.

Pools are a predictable water safety zone. Rivers, beaches and other in-land waterways can also be dangerous, especially due to the currents and weather changes.

The increase of rain due to the La Nina weather patterns has led to more flood waters across regional Victoria. Floods cost Victorians more than $460 million every year, and can cause significant damage to homes, businesses, and community infrastructure.

Victoria’s State Emergency Services (VICSES) has developed flood guides to help communities plan and prepare for flood. They also have a local flood information map to see what’s happening in your municipality. VICSES work closely with the Bureau of Meteorology and local councils so communities can be as prepared as possible for flooding in their areas.

Setting aside the weather impacts, the most popular sites for water recreation is along our coast. The influx of people to beaches and other popular rivers and lakes over the summer holidays has increased the risk of accidents.

Councils know their communities and environment best and have the tools to communicate effectively to target the most vulnerable people. Councils are sharing simple messages such as stay between the flags, follow signs, avoid alcohol, don’t swim alone and wear a lifejacket which can help save a life.

We must still socially distance, wear masks and keeping records this summer whether we’re inside or outside. The latest outbreak has shown coronavirus has not left us yet. We need to be COVID and water safe and consider how the last few months may have affected our strength or habits since last summer.

It is more important than ever this summer to be vigilant and increase community awareness and actions around water safety.

This opinion editorial was published on the 9 January and appeared in the Ballarat Courier, Bendigo Advertiser, Border Mail and the Warrnambool Standard.