New research shows people often don't recognise the signs of drowning, causing many not to step in and prevent it.
The international study found that most people are not able to wave or shout for help when drowning, prompting a new way to help prevent it.
Jonathon Webber, a researcher from the University of Auckland, along with water safety researchers from Brazil, USA, Netherlands, Denmark and Canada have developed the "Drowning Chain of Survival" in the hopes to educate the public on the signs of drowning.
The Chain of Survival is five simple steps that researchers say could significantly improve chances of prevention, survival and recovery of people in danger in the water.
"Prevention is the most important contributor to reduce drowning. In low and medium income countries where more than 90% of the global drowning occurs, guidance to accelerate culturally appropriate prevention, rescue and resuscitation strategies is most urgently needed," says Mr Webber.
The key measures are prevention through safety in and around water; recognition of swimmers in distress; provision of flotation devices; removal from the water and medical attention.
The five steps sound simple but Jonathon Webber says it is not always easy to recognise someone in distress and activate rescue and medical services.
"It's important to realise, contrary to the prevailing notion, that most people are not able to wave or shout for help when drowning. Instead, they may appear to be climbing an 'invisible ladder' in a desperate effort to stay afloat."
Drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide. The World Health Organisation estimates 359,000 people lose their lives to drowning each year.
In New Zealand, 81 people died of drowning in 2013. This is the lowest annual toll since records began in 1980.