Working with fisherfolk on Lake Victoria in Tanzania to prevent drowning


CIDT’s Rachel Roland is currently seconded to the RNLI to lead the development of a programme of drowning prevention work with fisherfolk and their communities on Lake Victoria in Tanzania. We are highlighting this work on International safety and health at work day, which seeks to highlight risks that workplaces pose around the world. Fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations worldwide, the World Health Organization states that ‘individuals with occupations such as commercial fishing or fishing for subsistence, using small boats in low-income countries are more prone to drowning’.

Research conducted by the RNLI, The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Mwanza Intervention Trials Unit (MITU) known as the DRIFT study (Drowning Intervention Strategies Among Fishing Communities in the lake zone of Tanzania) has shown that artisanal fishers on Lake Victoria, drown in appallingly high numbers. According to this research, undertaken in 8 small communities, 70 fisherfolk drowned over a recent 2-year period; that’s a rate of 1,501/100,000 – 50 times higher than deaths from malaria in a similar community. So drowning is really a silent killer of epidemic proportions.

Most fishing related drownings globally relate to a need to enter the water, despite risky conditions. The risk on Lake Victoria is compounded by non-traditional fishers, especially youths, being attracted to the fishing sector due to high unemployment in other sectors. These youths are expected to not understand the dangers as much as traditional fishers. In addition, the dynamics of boat ownership and crew selection further raise the risk of drowning coupled with boats being made of softer, less waterproofed wood given the deforestation around the Lake.

Such drownings significantly affect families and communities left behind. Most relatives of fisher folk who have drowned note the increased burden of caring for their family with a reduced income. Respondents described family breakdowns, having to find other sources of income, and moving away.

‘I was thrown out of the house that we were renting so I had to look for a more affordable one… It has been an unending struggle with these children’. (victim’s wife).

‘The family depended a lot on him, despite him not having children of his own… He was the breadwinner of the family’. (victim’s close friend); ‘After he passed away the family separated. They closed the house and moved away’. (victim’s aunt).

‘I became the provider of two families because they said I am the one who caused his death by letting him go fishing’. (victim’s brother-in-law).

However, most of these tragic deaths are preventable through co-created low-cost solutions. The RNLI programme in Tanzania has two main aims, firstly to understand what drives attitudes and behaviours around risk-taking that leads to higher drowning risk and, secondly, to develop and implement the appropriate interventions to lessen the drowning problem.

The problem needs to be understood and owned by whole communities, fishers, beach managers, people living with disabilities, women, men and especially families of fishermen, before solutions can be developed to tackle this vast problem together. The project will determine which priority solutions will be prototyped, piloted, and assessed in each community including both direct drowning prevention elements as well as the support of livelihood improvements to reduce the dependence on higher risk activities like fishing.

We aim to support the uptake of solutions through capacity development, skills development and through supporting high quality supervised practice.

The work in Tanzania with fishing communities is currently the joint work of the RNLI and a number of implementing partners such as the Environmental Management and Economic Development Organisation (EMEDO) of Mwanza, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Mwanza Intervention Trials Unit (MITU), The Fisheries Education and Training Agency, The Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute , IPSOS Tanzania Ltd and Ifakara Health institute.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is a charity, established by Royal Charter, that has been saving lives since 1824 and uses its expertise to reduce drowning globally. Since its inception the RNLI has saved more than 140,000 lives.

Although in the UK RNLI’s work is known mainly for volunteer lifeboat crews and lifeguards, internationally lifesaving activities can look quite different. In rural Bangladesh, RNLI are helping children aged 1-5 at high risk of drowning stay safe by providing 17,500 supervised places in community creches. In Zanzibar, Tanzania, RNLI’s partner has trained teachers to deliver water safety education to over 50,000 schoolchildren and taught over 7,000 children how to swim.

In its international work RNLI closely engages with host communities, through partners, to build their capacity and expertise in water safety in a sustainable way, so that this can continue without the need for external support.

Author: Rachel Roland, CIDT Principal Lecturer and RNLI Senior International Programmes Manager (Tanzania), in conjunction with Lizz Armstrong (RNLI International Department).

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