AA red flag flies on the beach in the Lithuanian coastal town of Klaipėda. It indicates that visitors are not allowed to enter the water. But only very few vacationers actually stop that from swimming in the sea. Aleksandras Siakki, head of sea rescue in Klaipėda, believes that many forget all rules of conduct as soon as they see the sea. “People know that if there’s a red flag in the air, they’re not allowed to swim,” says Siakki. “But most of them think they won’t drown.”
It’s currently around 30 degrees in Lithuania, and many people are flocking to the coast. That’s a cause for concern for the country’s lifeguards. Despite its many lakes and the almost 100 km long Baltic Sea coast, Lithuania is one of the countries in the European Union with the most deaths from drowning.
According to Eurostat, there were 5,100 drowning deaths in the EU in 2017. The highest rate among member countries was recorded in the Baltic States. In Latvia there were 5.6 deaths per 100,000 population, in Lithuania it was 4.8 and in Estonia 3.2. According to Eurostat, the value for Germany was only 0.6.
Education and safety training
According to Siakki, sea rescuers rescued four people in Klaipėda last year and 25 this year. “Sea conditions are extreme this summer, with constant westerly winds and dangerous waves pushing out to sea,” says Siakki. He believes that further education and safety training is urgently needed. “Every child should be introduced to this at school before the start of summer.”
The lack of knowledge is not the only problem. According to data from the Lithuanian Sports Center from 2021, 24 out of 60 municipalities in Lithuania do not have swimming pools. According to the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport, only 33 Lithuanian municipalities have swimming pools. “There’s a program for second graders that gives them swimming lessons,” says Siakki. “But we don’t have enough baths.” With devastating consequences: “There are very few people who can swim properly, many can only stay afloat for a short time.”
Lots of lakes but few swimming pools
The situation has already improved, according to Ilona Zuozienė, a professor at the Lithuanian University of Sports and a member of the Executive Committee of the Lithuanian Swimming Federation. According to Zuozienė, more than 300 people drowned in Lithuania in 2000, while the number has now dropped to 140-150. Measured by the number of inhabitants – almost 2.8 million people live in Lithuania – the number is still high compared to Western European countries. Zuozienė also sees the lack of swimming pools as the main problem. “It’s a vicious circle because we have many lakes but very few swimming pools where people can learn to swim and get a basic understanding of how to behave in the water,” says Zuozienė. She believes that offering classes for second graders is a good solution because it reaches most children, at least in communities that have swimming pools. “We cannot say that these children are gaining solid swimming skills,” says Zuozienė. “But they learn how to swim, dive and control their breathing.”
According to the Lithuanian Ministry of Education, Science and Sport, the program for primary school students includes 32 lessons on swimming and water safety. Last year, 30 communities took part in the training program. It is free and funded by the ministry and the participating municipalities. In addition, ten new swimming pools are to be opened in the country in the coming years.
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