On a recent Wednesday afternoon, when a powerful thunderstorm darkened the sky over Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, children were still playing in the city's outdoor Olympic-size pool. No one – not even the staff who were supposed to be watching them – told them to get out of the water.
British lifeguard and swim instructor David Hunt couldn't help but notice. "You feel responsible when you know it shouldn't be happening," he says.
In all likelihood the "lifeguards" working at the country's largest swimming pool were not trained. Sometimes they appeared to be sleeping in their chairs. That they were there at all is remarkable: Most people who come to Cambodia never encounter a lifeguard.
That's because there is no lifeguard training course for Cambodian nationals in this small country. Cori Parks, an American instructor who runs the only lifeguard training program in Cambodia, caters to expatriates and hasn't certified a single Cambodian – ever. The course she offers costs $350 – three times the average monthly salary here.
But Mr. Hunt – who has taught hundreds of children to swim since arriving in the country seven years ago – has recently started training Cambodia's first generation of swimmers who will know how to save someone in trouble in the water.
This school year he introduced a lifeguard training program at the iCAN British International School in Phnom Penh, where he works. The 30 teenagers in his class learned how to rescue someone using a rope, administer first aid, and retrieve and resuscitate an unconscious victim. They also know what to do if a boat capsizes, and how to help without endangering themselves.
"It's a life skill – [once you learn it, it becomes] instinctive. You can do it at any time. It's like learning to ride a bicycle; you don't forget how to do it," Hunt says. He also plans to start an affordable program to train adult lifeguards next year.
In this flood-prone country, their skills will be in demand. Last year, a UNICEF report found that drowning is the leading cause of death for children in Cambodia after the age of 1. According to the May 2012 report, approximately 1,800 Cambodian children drown every year – a rate 10 times greater than those in rich nations. The median age of a child in Cambodia who has drowned is 4 years old, the report found.
The astounding number of drowning victims means that the number of children who drown is greater than the number who die from malaria, HIV/AIDS, dengue, and traffic accidents. Drowning has been significantly underestimated because statistics were collected from hospitals, where children who drown are seldom taken, the report says.
The report also found that less than 10 percent of drowning victims received resuscitation from a trained responder, 40 percent received no resuscitation, and 50 percent were subjected to ineffective and harmful practices that included jumping on the chest to expel water, inserting sticks into the mouth to induce vomiting, and heating the body over a fire to try to get the water inside to dry up.
A year after the report was released, however, neither Cambodia's government nor the dozens of international aid organizations working in the country have developed a program to teach children to swim or train lifeguards.
UNICEF's spokeswoman in Cambodia, Denise Shepherd-Johnson, says that her organization's drowning-prevention strategies include teaching mothers to keep water containers covered and increasing preschool attendance, so that more children are under adult supervision.
She referred a reporter to the government's accident-prevention official – whose title is "mine risk education coordinator." (According to the report on child injury in Cambodia, which was submitted to UNICEF by The Alliance for Safe Children, 130 children lost their lives because of land mines and explosives in 2006, when the survey was done.)
Teaching swimming in Cambodia is a logistical challenge because most adults here don't know how to swim, either. According to the report on child injury, only a quarter of Cambodians ever learn to swim. This year, a US-funded initiative to train Cambodian deminers to remove explosives from the bottom of the country's rivers brought to light the fact that before they could be taught to scuba dive, the 40 middle-aged men had to be taught to swim.
Hunt himself didn't learn to swim until he was 11; he grew up in Heanor – a town as far from the sea as you can get in England, he says. He was embarrassed that he was older than the others in his learn-to-swim class, so he worked extra hard to become a good swimmer.
By the time he was a teenager, he was a lifeguard at his local pool and had traveled all over England to compete in lifesaving tournaments, a sport that includes events such as rescuing make-believe victims from submerged vehicles.
After a job on an African island (where he also started a swimming program), Hunt replied to an advertisement for a teaching position in Cambodia. He knew that swim instruction would be part of his responsibilities – but hadn't realized that, in addition to his students, he would find himself teaching school janitors, cooks, security guards, and teachers.
Teaching adults to swim is worthwhile, he says, because every person who learns can share knowledge with others.
"It was something they didn't have an opportunity to do before. In general, the older population [in Cambodia] don't know how to swim," he says. "The first thing we learn is how to be safe in water – what to do if they're tired, if they get a cramp, all the things you need to do in an emergency."
To improve the iCAN school's swimming program, Hunt hired athletes from Cambodia's national swim team – the first international school in Cambodia to do so. Other schools in the city soon followed his lead.
Hunt also expanded interschool swimming competitions here. He standardized events and established separate competitions for different age groups. The number of children participating in meets has increased from 40 five years ago to almost 200 today, he says.
Next year, Hunt will invite schools from Vietnam to compete against swimmers in Cambodia for the first time – and he plans to introduce a lifesaving relay.
"He's the one who's been most proactive, the one who sent the e-mails around, who drew us all together," says Jennifer Ainsworth, the swim team director at the HOPE International School in Phnom Penh. "Before, certain things were not uniform – the races were all in different order, there were different ways ... to score points."
Hunt also organizes the Mekong River Swim, an annual event in which people race from one bank of Asia's seventh-largest river to the other, nearly a half-mile away. While the event was started by expats, in recent years more Cambodians have begun to join in. This year more than 100 people swam across the river, including children as young as 12.
To make the Mekong River Swim safer, Hunt quadrupled the number of volunteers and trained adults, who learned to swim at his school, that serve as monitor swimmers. In the past, participants were chaperoned by fishermen, who had no special training, he says.
Most of all, though, Hunt is dedicated to teaching children to swim. He is proud that at the iCAN school, where he is vice principal, every child is taught to swim beginning at age 3. The school has more than 300 students, the majority of whom hold Cambodian passports.
One of Hunt's former students is 17-year-old Regis Seng. Two months ago, he went to a birthday party and ended up saving an 8-year-old boy who almost drowned in a pool.
"When people saw [the child], people thought he was playing, pretending like he was drowning; the two nannies thought that. We looked at him [and thought] why is he not moving, he is just floating. It was pretty scary," Regis recalls.
"We jumped in and swam back and used the skills, like David taught us, like how to hold the head.... I felt good that I saved somebody's life," he says.
Helping children in Cambodia and elsewhere
UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.
Below are three groups selected by UniversalGiving that help children in Cambodia and elsewhere:
• The Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children works to improve the health of children in the developing world. Project: Work as a health volunteer with children in India.
• The GVN Foundation supports the charitable and educational work of local community organizations. Project: Volunteer in English classes in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.