Filipinos should know how to swim
Every year, thousands of Filipinos die by drowning, and, as investigations would reveal, many of those victims didn’t know how to swim.
Some of these incidents took place during a typhoon — or in the midst of incessant monsoon rains. Others happened in maritime disasters, such as the sinking of MV Doña Paz in 1987.
In certain cases, perhaps the ability to swim may not have been able to count for much. But even with the best of weather conditions — and without a precipitating disaster — many drowning incidents have happened in the country. In last year’s Holy Week alone, for instance, dozens of fatalities in various tourist spots were reported — from waterfalls and creeks to swimming pools and beach resorts.
Surely, there were other factors at play: lack of supervision (particularly for young children), inadequate equipment, among others. But there remains the question of how many deaths could have been prevented had the victims possessed some swimming ability.
Beyond the circumstantial evidence from these fatalities, studies reveal that swimming ability is really low in the Philippines — even in coastal communities, where more boys can swim than girls (e.g., Hunter et al. 2016). While there’s a lot of interest in pools and beaches, most people are more keen to wade in the water (tampisaw) than to actually swim (langoy). As many commentators have pointed out, this is very ironic for an archipelago of over 7,000 islands.
If poor swimming ability is — as the World Health Organization reported in 2014 — a risk factor for drowning, one obvious solution is to make more Filipinos learn how to swim. Some legislators are already looking into this possibility: House Bill No. 3495, a “Drowning Prevention Act” filed by Iligan Rep. Frederick Siao in 2016, seeks to include swimming as part of the K-to-12 curriculum. The rationale is compelling: A survey by the United Nations Children’s Fund shows that drowning is the second leading cause of death among Filipino children—and the fourth leading cause of injury-related deaths in the country.
But unless there is government support, this will be a tall order for private and public schools alike, particularly in some school districts: If they can’t even have classrooms and chairs, how can we dream of swimming pools? For island communities, perhaps beaches can also be considered, but for most places our natural bodies of water are too polluted or inaccessible to be recommended.
One other challenge is to overcome people’s disinclination to swimming. As I have written in a previous column, we seem to have lost our maritime consciousness; many have even taken to fear water — a fear that is perhaps partly rooted in the idea that water can bring disaster and disease. Of course, this is a vicious cycle: The very fear of the water is rooted in one’s lack of experience in it.
These impediments, however, should not stop us from trying to promote a culture of swimming. By making it easier for people to access swimming pools, perhaps we can encourage more swimmers.
Another way is to promote swimming as a priority sport. Although a lot of Filipinos don’t know how to swim, many others are so intimate with the sea that they can naturally thrive in the sport given the proper support. It takes just one Li Na to inspire the Chinese to play tennis; surely a Filipino Joseph Schooling can inspire Filipinos to take to the water — and we have promising athletes today like Nicole Oliva and Sacho Ilustre.
As more people swim, I suspect we will also be breaking unfounded fears about the water, and spread waves of awareness that it is not to be shunned, but embraced. Swimming is good for health, too, improving cardiovascular and musculoskeletal strength, and mental wellbeing. What’s more, studies also show that swimmers live longer.
With climate change predisposing us to more severe weather episodes — including typhoons and floods — swimming ability has taken on a greater importance as part of disaster preparedness, and should truly be included in students’ curriculum, along with water safety and rescue skills.
More than a life-saving measure, however, I hope we also (re)discover swimming as part of our lives.
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