After Malaria and malnutrition, drowning is the cause of more deaths than any other. Although a relatively rare occurrence, aircraft incidents involving fatalities make headline news across the world, yet an overturned canoe resulting in just as many deaths does not. Drowning has become the silent epidemic and is, unfortunately, often out of sight and out of mind.


Reducing deaths from drowning is a central pillar of the work currently being facilitated by the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF) and the continent of Africa has become a recent focus of attention. Sadly, there is a close correlation between poverty, lack of education and high mortality rates and many African nations need help to address the many deaths that are attributed to drowning.

IMRF is an independent charity that brings the world's maritime search and rescue organisations together under a global umbrella. Its aim is to facilitate the sharing of lifesaving ideas, technologies and experiences to achieve the common humanitarian aim of "preventing loss of life in the world's waters".

Facilitating a greater awareness of the causes of drowning, coupled with assistance to enhance the management and practical capabilities of maritime search & rescue (SAR) activities in Africa, has been spearheaded by Mohammed Drissi. Drissi is an IMRF Trustee and also head of the SAR bureau in Morocco, a former master mariner and expert on maritime affairs. He began his work in 2012 on Africa’s northwest coast working with authorities in Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia. The focus has now widened to include south and east Africa and also a number of central, landlocked states. Rivers and lakes present an equal hazard with lakes in Uganda recording upwards of 4,000 drownings each year. IMRF’s work does not just protect the local population:  a fully-fledged SAR operation will also save the lives of the many national and international mariners using coastal and adjacent waters.

IMRF’s work in Africa is funded by a range of partners including the Technical Cooperation Committee (TCC) of the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Working hand-in-hand with IMO, IMRF’s aim is to create a sustainable difference. The first step, according to Drissi, is to help national authorities establish facilities that comply with IMO’s SAR plan and, in particular, the development of fully functional maritime rescue coordination centres (MRCCs). Depending on the nation, work might involve enhancing a system that is already in place, or starting from scratch. Sharing best practice, running regional meetings, offering SAR and GMDSS training courses are all part of the package. IMRF’s role is to coordinate and facilitate the work, it is IMRF members themselves – like Mohammed Drissi – and local expert SAR professionals who perform the tasks on the ground. In 2017, for example, members ran a total of 12 regional training courses attended by more than 120 locals to make them fully conversant with the requirements of IMO’s International Aeronautical and Maritime SAR manual. Three practical boat handling courses (delivered by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue) taught practical skills; and the local network of trainers was enhanced.

But sustainability is the key. Experience has taught IMRF that there is little point in running a handful of classroom sessions and hoping for the best. Locals must be given a hands-on opportunity to set up their systems and processes themselves. A programme of “train the trainers” must be implemented to allow the continued sharing and widening of the indigenous skill set once IMRF has left town. And, most importantly, IMRF members must re-visit many times to ensure standards are being maintained. According to Drissi, five years is the minimum period to train people and allow them to build their experience. After 10 years, sustainability will usually have been achieved.

Interconnectivity is also key to success and part of IMRF’s work is to ensure one nation coordinates with another at an MRCC level. This requires building communications, relationships and trust – a recent success has been the open dialogue now enjoyed between authorities in Morocco and Guinea-Bissau. Interestingly, relationship building has further enhanced SAR capabilities as IMRF is seeing a degree of competition between developing nations. Some are now vying with each other to create enhanced and more comprehensive facilities.

Fostering political will to operate a sustainable and efficient SAR capability is also essential if IMRF is to achieve workable results. IMO is a significant factor here and the Agency works with IMRF to open doors where required. IMO is the driver behind IMRF expanding its activities into east Africa and it is hoped that a similar programme – again backed by IMO – will be created in a number of Asian nations. As a United Nations Agency, IMO is also furthering achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, including the empowerment of women and girls, by working to increase the number of women operating in the maritime sector. This is as important for SAR activities in Africa as it is elsewhere.  IMRF members push hard for the inclusion of women in SAR trainings but, although the numbers of women SAR professionals is growing,  local attitudes can sometimes be a challenge.

IMRF recognises that there is much work to be done to reduce the drowning statistics in Africa and the programme of work currently underway will significantly enhance the safety of the local  population, as well as the transient maritime community. Thanks to the generosity of its funders and the expertise of its members, IMRF is making a real difference in the coastal and inland nations of Africa.

Looking ahead, IMRF will continue its work in Africa to build on current successes. The World Health Organisation refers to drowning as a “leading global killer” and IMRF is working hard to make Africa less of a victim.


By Mohammed Drissi, Trustee, International Maritime Rescue Federation

The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.

About Mohammed Drissi

Mohammed is a Master Mariner, maritime affairs administrator and a sworn expert on maritime affairs. He has worked in maritime SAR since 1999 and is tasked to develop SAR services within the Kingdom of Morocco. He is the head of SAR Bureau at Ocean Fisheries Ministry and Coordinator of the national technical SAR committee which include civil and military departments. He is the Regional Coordinator for Africa (since 2010) and has been involved in many SAR projects within the North and West Africa SAR region with the cooperation of IMO and IMRF.