Sunday, June 24, 2007


Foreigners in Taiwan are always amazed at the inability of Taiwanese to swim despite living on an island surrounded by water and cross-cut by numerous rivers. Swimming pools abound, too. Even more alarming is that despite an avowed inability to swim, Taiwanese often go down to the water to play, resulting in many otherwise avoidable deaths. Yesterday the Taipei Times reported that Taiwanese kids are at unusual risk of drowning:

According to numbers released by the WHO and cited by the foundation, only 0.5 out of 100,000 children up to 14 years old in Australia died while playing in water in 2001.

The figure in Taiwan, however, was 1.8 per 100,000 person, "which is three times higher than the figure in Australia," Lin Yue-chin (林月琴), executive director of the foundation, told the press conference.

Statistics released by the foundation showed that accidental death has been the No. 1 cause of death among children since 1994.

Drowning is the number 2 cause of accidental deaths here among kids, and in the world among all people. An NOAA report noted that drowning is actually underreported as a cause of death, since typical "accident" definitions exclude drowning due to catastrophes such as flooding or storms.

The Taiwan problem is global -- death rates by drowning in India, Africa, and China are much higher than in the developed world, where many people learn to swim. In the developed world marginalized and minority populations, typically poorer than the majority, also have higher death rates due to a lack of education in swimming and water safety. Taiwan is no exception in the Chinese world. According to the NOAA report above, drowning is the leading cause of injury death for children 1-14 in China.

In Taiwan, another drowning risk often overlooked is the constant presence of water in farms, including innumerable irrigation ditches, dams, culverts, and aquaculture pools. In one Australian study, farm irrigation facilities cause more than 3/4 of all drowning deaths in the 5 and under cohort.

The Foundation recommended that Taiwan put greater emphasis on education:

Education is another measure the government should take, Lin suggested.

"Our field investigation found that only 3.56 percent of schools nationwide require that their students learn to swim," Lin said.

"In addition, swimming lessons should consist of more than just letting students learn to swim. Students should be taught practical survival skills in water, especially in emergencies," Lin said.

Meanwhile, Lin emphasized that parents must also share the responsibility.

"During our field investigation, we also saw many parents allow their children to play in rivers alone, or while being monitored from a distance," Lin said.

"An emergency can occur at any moment and can take your child's life in just seconds," Lin warned.

Only 4% of students obtain swimming instruction at their schools. The Foundation also made clear that the famous Taiwanese indifference to safety is also an issue.

My first year at the university I lost two students to drowning, one by death, the other to injury. They were "playing" in shallow water outside of Taichung Harbor, apparently, and drowned in water that was deep enough to stand up and walk out of. The same thing happened to the kids who died last month in Ta-ken. Panic and inexperience will claim your life in seconds in the water. In addition to pushing them to have a plan for what to do after graduation, one of the stock speeches I give to my students is that they have to learn to swim, which should be regarded as a necessary skill, not a leisure activity. Generally I find that about half my kids are unable to swim at all, including my adult students. That's a recipe for a continuing high death rate by drowning.


Anonymous said...

I think the statistics are even worse when you consider the average Australian child would spend far more time swimming and playing around water than a Taiwanese child.

Mark said...

In my high school, we had a required swimming test that treading water for 45 minutes, and knowing how to use shirts and pants as a make-shift life vest. Passing the test was a requirement for graduation, and only seriously disabled students were exempt.

FYI, I grew up more than a 1000 miles from the closest ocean or great lake.

Anonymous said...

The article indicates that poor or missing warning signs might be the probelm. In Australia kids start learning to swim as young as 2 and definately by age 6. The single problem in Taiwan is that kids just don't learn to swim
Steve F

davesgonechina said...

"They were "playing" in shallow water outside of Taichung Harbor, apparently, and drowned in water that was deep enough to stand up and walk out of."

Forget swimming, how about teaching them how to stand up?

Anonymous said...

re: taichung harbour...

i know a lot of deaths were the result of strong undercurrents.

it's like you are walking and playing in shallow beach, but the next monent, you can't find your foothold.

it happened quite a lot in taiwan, and even good swimmers can't seem to escape from it.

Anonymous said...


Sorry to hear about your two students. I know if I'd been in your shoes, I'd have taken it pretty rough.

Runsun said...

Taiwanese didn't seem to have such high drowning death toll when KMT was the boss. Obviously, it's all ah-bian's fault.

Runsun said...

When I was in college one of my classmates drown when we had a BBQ party on a sea shore. The sea shore was about 30 min drive from our college and therefore a commonly visited place to us. Not to mention that he was an expert diver (and school socker team player). We couldn't understand how could he be possibly drown at that site, until his body was found 2 days after missing.

He was sucked into a hole under the riff where strong current kept going in and flowing out from the other side. The hole was too small for his body to go through, and the current was too strong for him to swim back out. The site of the hole was less than 5 meters from the shore. If we knew he was there, we could have just reached out and pulled him back.

There was no safty warning sign. When we were searching for him, there were coupld of other teenager groups partying there. (Yes, at the same time we were looking for the body). Some kids just went close to the riff back and forth chasing the tides. I had an urge to grab them and slap them on the face.