Why do so many Māori drown?

10:22 am on 23 December 2015

Newly funded research will investigate the over-representation of Māori in national drowning statistics.

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Māori make up about 15 percent of New Zealand's population yet account for 22 percent of national drownings. Photo: RNZ

University of Otago researcher Chanel Phillips said, through her doctoral research, she hoped to get an understanding of why such a high number of Māori drown.

Māori make up about 15 percent of New Zealand's population yet account for 22 percent of national drownings.

Miss Phillips said she hoped her project would provide answers.

One of the few existing reports on this topic suggested it might be because Māori, who had a strong cultural connection to water, no longer had access to traditional knowledge and tikanga associated with water safety, she said.

"Do we still have the knowledge that our tupuna had prior to colonisation, and do we still have that matauranga around being safe in the water and around our cultural connection to water?

"Maybe our high drowning rate could reflect the disconnection or severing of that relationship."

Sea urchin, or known more widely in New Zealand but its Māori name, kina.

Lakes, rivers and seas are treasured by Māori as sources of food. Photo: 123rf

Miss Phillips, who is of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Hine descent, said it might also reflect a greater exposure of Māori to lakes, rivers and seas, particularly as revered sources of food.

"There is a lot of literature around why we, as New Zealanders, are drowning but very little has been done about why Māori specifically are drowning.

"I'm looking at a textual analysis of our Māori text, looking at our whakatauki, our moteatea, waiata, karakia and pepeha around water.

"That's going to pull out the main themes around how Māori viewed the water, our attitudes - and that in turn [will] show how we engage within these environments."

She said she would use case studies in Hawke's Bay and Otago.

"My doctoral research will investigate the health connection of Māori to the ocean, rivers, and lakes through a case study of Hawke's Bay, working with Te Taitimu Trust, and Otago, working with Ki Uta Ki Tai Volunteer Week, and highlight whether this health connection contributes to Māori drowning rates."

The findings from her study would help identify interventions and contribute to Water Safety New Zealand's Māori strategy, Kia Maanu Kia Ora: Stay Afloat, Stay Alive.

Miss Phillips has been awarded a Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) Māori PhD Scholarship, worth $120,000, for her research.

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