The scores of people who died in the devastating floods that hit south Russia at the weekend were just a small percentage of the total number of those who drown to death here every year. More people drown in Russia annually than in the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada combined, a startling statistic that puts the country top of global drowning figures.
Russia’s Emergency Ministry says 6,476 people died nationwide in 2009, the latest year it was able to provide full figures for.
In comparison, around 4,000 people drown annually in the United States and less than 500 in each Britain, Australia and Canada, according to International Life Saving Federation statistics.
In a 2003 regional program to teach children how to swim, officials in the northern port city of Murmansk said that 90 percent of elementary-school age children and 40 percent of high-school students in Russia are unable to swim. They also say that around 70 percent of Russian women, nationwide, are likewise helpless in the water. It was not clear where these figures had been obtained from.
“A nationwide swimming program was introduced around two years ago, but before this there was nothing,” said Margarita Balakireva spokeswoman for Russia’s National Swimming Federation. “Teaching children not only to swim, but also life-saving skills should bring down the amount of drowning deaths.”
But Russia’s well-documented problem with alcohol also has a role to play.
The heatwave of 2010, which saw record-breaking temperatures across the central part of Russia also saw figures on drowning deaths shattered, as people sought relief from the heat in lakes and rivers.
Over 1,000 people would subsequently drown that June, according to official statistics. Many of these deaths were caused by an unfortunate tendency to mix alcohol and swimming.
"The majority of those drowned were drunk," said Emergencies Ministry official Vadim Seryogin. He was speaking shortly after six children had drowned in south Russia’s Sea of Azov because summer camp employees looking after them were drunk. None of the children were able to swim, reports said.
“We can’t say that the whole of Russia is going swimming while drunk, of course,” said Balakireva. “But very often, yes, people have too much to drink before jumping in the water.”
“Another reason is that people often go swimming in places that are dangerous, without really being aware of the risks,” she added.
And the tragedies just keep coming. Officials in west Russia’s Oryol region said on Monday that six people had drowned in the area during the weekend of July 7-8.
“People’s attitude to their personal safety is just depressing,” an emergency services spokesperson told local media after police and other officials had visited hazardous, yet popular swimming spots. “Instead of listening to the advice of specialists, they start arguing with them.”