I received with sadness, the news of the tragic death of na turaga na i taukei Bolatagane , the late Tui Macuata Ratu Aisea Cavunailoa Katonivere.
The Tui Macuata’s passing is tragic on a number of levels. The vanua of Macuata has not only lost its paramount chief, but an exemplary leader, whose wisdom, progressive thinking and humility had a positive impact on the vanua and the whole province of Macuata, to which through my mother, I have a relationship with (as vasu).
In particular I have greatly admired the late Tui Macuata’s attitude towards the environment and his leadership in the area of conservation, not just for his province but also at a national level. It is one of my regrets that I never had the opportunity to get to know him in person. There are others who are in a much better position to eulogise this traditional leader who had made the transition to modern and perhaps even post-modern leadership.
The second tragedy for me, in the passing away of the Tui Macuata, was the manner of his passing. Ratu Aisea’s death brings the drowning toll for 2013 to 22 as of yesterday.
The fact that we have a relatively high number of incidents of drowning for such a small country has always been a concern for me especially as we are an island nation – a maritime nation.
In 2006 some of my cousins were having a family get together in Baulevu. They decided to challenge each other and swim across the river. Half away across my cousin got a cramp and went under. His young widow was left to raise their little boy.
Once in high school three of my classmates and I decided somewhat foolishly to swim across the Sigatoka River. We figured being two national representatives to the Olympic Games and two national level swimmers; we would be able to manage the current. We were wrong. At one stage we were swimming as hard as we could and not even moving. Eventually we managed to make it to the other side but then had to trek up the river road to find an easier way to cross back. We were lucky. Others have not been so lucky.
In 2010 the Xinhua News Agency reported that Fiji has one of the highest death rate in drowning incidents in the world. On the last day of 2012, the Fiji Times reported that drowning in Fiji remains prominent among the male iTaukei under 10 and aged above 45 years.
According to statistics from the Fiji Police Force, last year 22 children under the age of 10 died from drowning , 15 between the age of 17 -22 years, 13 between the age of 26-35 years , 11 above 45 years, six between 36-45 years, and three between 11-16 years.
The drowning toll for 2012 was 72 compared to 44 in 2011 with the highest incidents recorded in the Western Division with 36 cases, 15 cases in the Eastern, 10 in the Northern, 9 in the Southern and 2 in the Central Division. It was also highlighted that more males died from drowning than females.
About 56 male drowned since January while 16 cases were recorded for females. Of the 72 lives lost, 52 were iTaukei, 17 Fijians of Indian descent and three others.
The statistics above highlight the fact that many people think that they can swim well when they can’t or fail to pay attention to the conditions of the sea or river. The time is long overdue for a national “swimming for life” strategy that goes beyond the concept of swimming as a sport. With so many coastal and riverside settlements survival swimming skills are not just important, they are essential.
National Swiming for Life programme would ensure the teaching of not jus basic swimming strokes but also essential water safety skills – treading water, how to conserve energy in the water, and how to swim in situations of choppy or big waves or strong currents.
While the government sports and educational institutes may have the capacity to develop and pilot a National Swimming for Life Strategy, this is something that needs to go beyond the Ministries of Youth and Sports or Education in terms of implementation.
Community groups, civil society and service organisations for men, women and youth and even religious organisations need to realise the importance of this issue which claims the lives of our fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. Given the circumstances of the latest drowning victim, this is also an area the vanua needs to get involved with.
I shared my concern with one of my childhood friends and experienced sailor, skipper of the Uto Ni Yalo, Captain Jonathan Smith. http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=231924
Capt. Smith pointed out some basic tips all those going out on fishing trips:
· Boats can be kept afloat by packing empty 600ml PET bottles or styrofoam under the floor boards.
· Fuel tanks can be used as a floatation device
· At sea, distance is much further than you think or can see -it is better to stay with something that floats and you can hang onto. Even the most strongest swimmer can never fight a current or waves. You will eventually get cramps and once that happens you are more or less dead unless you have something to hang onto to keep your head above water.
· Always stay together as a group. A group is easier to spot by rescuers and the survival rate is higher because you have moral and spiritual support body warmth and the stronger people help the weaker, injured or sick people.
· When you exert yourself you are also losing body heat which can lead to hypothermia (yes here in the tropics you can get hypothermia if you're in the water long enough). The more you exert yourself, the more body heat loss, a higher chance of hypothermia. Hang onto something and paddle or swim slow.
· If you can get to a reef then stay on the reef until help arrives.
· People worry about sharks. Sharks are like dogs - you can never outrun or out swim them. Your best chance of survival is facing it and fighting it. Even then sharks don't just turn up and attack like in the movies. If you see them they would be just curious and checking you out from a distance, they will eventually swim away Don’t start splashing around and smacking the water to try and scare them away - that will only excite them and draw them in for a closer inspection.
· A lot of drowning here in Fiji is just through panic, which in turn leads to cramp, then drowning. Panic and cramps are the main killer. Stay calm, think about the situation you're in, see what your options are, make sure if there is anyone with you that you are all together.
· Treat any injury as best you can.
· The more energy you save by not over exerting yourself, the higher your chance of survival.
We are called to respect nature, respect the ocean and the rivers. A respectful user of the sea and river will always understand their place in that environment and be prepared accordingly.
As parents, elders, leaders in the family, community and nation, there is a responsibility to work towards a day when all Fijians, as islanders will be able to approach the ocean and river respectfully, with understanding and knowledge of the conditions and the ability to survive and enjoy the water.
“Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity”