Rising river levels from recent rains, thanks to a summer in a La Nina weather event, have prompted a reminder to locals and visitors about the importance of river safety.
For more than 40 years, volunteer rescue diver Peter Wright OAM Wright has recovered the bodies of more than 50 people who have fatally drowned along our stretch of the river and he issues a stern warning this summer asking locals to respect the river.
“This year there will be more drownings, there is no doubt about it, but the message is, don’t let it be your family or friends that end up on the front page of the newspaper for being another tragic victim,” Mr Wright said.
“We want people to stay safe around the river and other waterways. Wear a life jacket if you’re on the water, supervise children and please don’t mix alcohol consumption with the river.
“The Royal Life Saving Society has plenty of evidence showing the number of drownings that occur predominantly in males when mixing alcohol and water activities.”
Only three years ago on the Australia Day long weekend 2019, a 37-year-old Melbourne man drowned in the Murray River below the weir adjacent to the Yarrawonga Regional Park while swimming with limited ability and under the influence.
Just a matter of weeks ago an 18-year-old male went missing and was later confirmed drowned in the Murray River at Noreuil Park in Albury after entering the water on Christmas Day although he had had little experience of swimming in the river.
Mr Wright said 99 per cent of all drownings in inland waterways are avoidable.
“The river is beautiful but it’s deceptive. The people most at risk are the ones who are unaware of the dangers,” he said.
“The theme with most of the drownings in my logbook is the families’ disbelief that it could have been their loved one.”
Locally the Yarrawonga Mulwala Canoe Club provides an important role in educating people of all ages about the river, its dangers (particularly those under water) and the importance of safety and preparation.
“This education is a big part of our programs both for young and old,” Yarrawonga Mulwala Canoe Club President Jared Loughnan said.
“We have many people come from metropolitan areas who buy a kayak or want to get on the river and do not understand its dangers, and some are not confident swimmers.
“Australia has many beautiful inland waterways including rivers, lakes, dams, lagoons, channels, and creeks; however they can pose safety risks. The flat, still surface of an inland waterway can give a false sense of security and being in a kayak will not always save you should you fall in and panic.
“Currents, undertows or submerged objects – even in seemingly tranquil waterways – can prove to be very dangerous.”
Mr Loughnan said the canoe club plays an important role to help people be aware of the dangers and always take care around water.
Inland waterways are not patrolled by lifeguards, and should someone get into trouble, there may be no one there to assist. “This is why we educate our paddlers about these dangers at the very start of their journey with our club,” he said.
Research by Royal Life Saving Australia recognises the Murray River as the number one river drowning black spot in Australia accounting for 27 per cent of all fatal drownings.
Royal Life Saving, with the support of the Federal Government is addressing these dangers by educating the public about inland waterway safety through the “Respect the River” project.
With the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) recently declaring a La Niña event, the outlook for summer in Eastern Australia is likely to be wetter than average. With that comes rising river levels and increased debris flowing along waterways.
Dr Amy Peden, an injury prevention researcher at the School of Population Health, UNSW Medicine & Health said fluctuating river levels can mean conditions can vary hour-by-hour, resulting in new debris or snags being washed downstream.
“It can also impact the speed with which the water is flowing as well as an increased risk of flooding,” Dr Peden said.
“We see extremely elevated rates of river drowning in rural areas compared to the city – up to 29 times the risk of drowning in a river in an area classified as very remote when compared to areas classified as major cities. “With rivers, there is also the added element of flood risk and changes to the river environment with debris, in addition to fast-flowing water.
“And finally, one of the biggest issues we see in cases of river drowning in Australia is alcohol consumption. “My research shows elevated blood alcohol concentrations are a real issue at rivers.
“On average, adult river drowning victims who had been drinking were four times the upper legal limit for driving a car (a BAC of 0.20% or higher) at their time of death.
“Consuming such significant amounts of alcohol around the water understandably increases drowning risk and was often involved in fatal incidents as a result of falls into water or jumping into the water from trees or bridges.”
Royal Life Saving advises people to:
Avoid alcohol around water. Stay out of the water if alcohol has been consumed. It is best to participate in aquatic activities before drinking any alcohol and not re-enter the water afterwards.
Wear a lifejacket when boating or using watercraft. In the case of an emergency, wearing a lifejacket can increase a person’s chance of survival by 50%.
Avoid swimming or recreating alone. This means that there will be someone around to call for help, if required.
For more information about the respect the river campaign visit: www.royallifesaving.com.au/about/campaigns-and-programs/respect-the-river.