skip to main content

Spike in river deaths the standout in 2016 drowning stats

11 January 2017

A dramatic rise in river drowning deaths and an increase in fatal incidents involving ‘other’ nationalities are features of the 2016 toll.

Water Safety New Zealand (WSNZ) released the 2016 annual drowning toll figures today. There were 81 preventable drowning deaths, a slight decrease from 86 in 2015 but the same as the five-year average.

“These figures show the huge amount of work still required to bring down New Zealand’s high drowning toll” says WSNZ CEO Jonty Mills.

River deaths topped the table. After a low of 10 river drowning deaths in 2010 there were 24 in 2016, 60% higher than the five-year average.

“This highlights the need for greater vigilance around rivers,” says Mills. “Rivers are very changeable, currents can be deceptive and objects can move and shift under the surface. We will work closely with local authorities to tackle this growing problem.”

There were 13 drowning deaths involving nationalities other than NZ European, Maori, Asian and Pacific peoples. That’s the highest number since records began, with 39% of the deaths occurring while swimming.

“This is a growing trend and a combination of a more diverse demographic living in New Zealand, growing immigration and tourism, and perhaps unfamiliarity of local conditions,” says Mills.

Mills says this shows more work needs to be done to educate new Kiwis and visitors to our shores. “We need to find better ways of connecting with these people so they can learn about our waterways, be aware of the conditions and know their own limits to make better decisions.”

Drowning remains largely a male issue with men making up 85% of all drowning deaths. “Men continue to overestimate their abilities and under estimate the risk when it comes to water,” says Mills. “The macho kiwi attitude that still seems to exist when men partake in water based activities continues to be a deadly one.”

The Northland and Waikato regions combined made up 42% of the total preventable drownings in 2016, with Waikato experiencing a 55% increase on their five year average and over half of their drowning deaths occurring in Rivers in 2016.

Jonty Mills says a program through Hamilton City Council is already underway to educate teens in the Waikato around river safety in this known local risk environment. “This has been a focus of ours as there has been an increase in incidents particularly involving young people. We need to give them the skills to make wise decisions and survive.”

In contrast, the South Island contributed 13, or 16% of the total preventable drownings in 2016 and well down on the five year average of 21. An encouraging trend has also seen the toll for the ‘under-fives’ equal the lowest on record of three in 2016 and 2015, which is half the five year average.

Download the Provisional Report for more details.

For safety tips and other information visit


*Preventable drowning fatalities are those where water safety sector intervention could have had an influence (for example where the victim was boating, swimming, diving) while non-preventable drowning deaths include events such as suicides, homicides and vehicle accidents (where water safety education and activity would not have prevented the death).

For media enquiries please call Ben Christie on 021770285

Spike in river deaths the standout in 2016 drowning stats

+ Text Size -