Jan Victor R. Mateo
The Philippine Star, Philippines
MANILA — With over 7,000 islands situated in the tropics of the Pacific, the Philippines boast having some of the best beaches in the world.
Ironically, the country also ranks high in terms of the number of people – especially children – who die due to drowning. A recent study released by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed that an average of 2,496 people die in the Philippines due to drowning every year between 1980 and 2011. While the government is implementing various initiatives to address the issue, there is no denying that there is a lot to be done.
This is why, in 2015, a group of Australian students from Griffith University decided to come up with a drowning prevention program that will be implemented in various coastlines across the Philippines.
“We hope that after the implementation of this program lives will be saved on the local beaches,” says Andrew McLean, directing manager of FLOAT Philippines.
FLOAT Philippines, is an initiative that aims to harness engagement between international and local organizations – including the government – to come up with strategies that will lower the drowning mortality in the Philippines.
“Drowning prevention programs are commonplace in Australia and we grow up feeling safe when we are at the beach, both as a result of our swimming culture and the incredible job our surf lifesavers do patrolling the beach,” adds McLean.
The primary idea is to come up with a sustainable program that will raise drowning prevention awareness among those living in coastline communities. The organization envisions to implement “learn to swim” and “surf lifesaving” programs in the country to lower cases of drowning, particularly in tourist spots.
Almost two years since they came up with the initial idea, McLean admits challenges in implementing a project in a location thousands of miles from where they are based.
He noted, that they had to go back to the drawing board after they visited the Philippines in January 2016 to conduct a needs assessment analysis, establish partnerships and meet with stakeholders.
But the group remains committed. FLOAT’S local coordinator Kina Santillan Pascua says they’re nearing the implementation phase of the project.
Pascua, a former coordinator for the Australian embassy, said she stayed on with the FLOAT project because she sees the importance of implementing a drowning prevention program in the Philippines.
“I work in a lot of development projects and everywhere I go, I see a lot of communities with kids playing near shorelines. It’s their backyard and we have to implement programs that will make their environment safer,” she says.
Following a second visit in July 2016, FLOAT was able to form partnerships with Zambles Surf Life Saving Inc. and the popular tourist hotel Charlie Does Inn, situated in the resort of Baler. Both organizations are committed to training lifeguards and to developing anti-drowning initiatives.
“FLOAT managed to raise the funds to train two Baler locals as lifesavers and our partners in Baler are currently trying to get a law passed by the government in hopes of securing funds for future employment and training of the surf lifesavers,” says McLean.
The organization also hopes to strengthen ties between Australia and the Philippines, and therefore further increase awareness of the project by meeting both the Australian and the Australian-New Zealand Chamber of Commerce Philippines, both situated in Manila.
Sustainable, scalable program
While the long-term objective is to promote a culture of safer aquatic spaces in the entire Philippines, the team behind the projects understands that they have to limit their program to make it sustainable and scalable.
“We hope to ensure sustainability through training and developing skills of the local organizations we are working with. In addition to this, we want to provide local and international partnerships to these organizations running the project from the ground level to boost their knowledge and capabilities in the drowning prevention field,” says McLean.
FLOAT’s pilot project will be based in Baler, but the team are hoping that in the long term, they will be able to provide surf lifesaving training across the Aurora Province.
“For the ‘learn to swim’ project, we are hoping to partner with Baler Central Primary School to create a sustainable swimming program… By doing this, we hope to extend the current learn to swim teachers expertise and allow them to reach more swimmers,” notes McLean.
There is still much work to be done to address the problem of drowning in the Philippines. But for these Australian students, distance – and the difference in nationality and culture – is not going to be a hindrance to ensure that Filipino children are safe in the water.
“We think that everyone should have the ability to learn to swim and enjoy an aquatic environment,” ends McLean.