Wollongong City Council, NSW

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Approximate population 215,000
21% overseas born
16% use a language other than English at home
3.2% Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander

Wollongong City Council recognised that as a city with almost 60 kilometres of coastline it has an important role in ensuring the safety of multicultural communities in the water. They actively partner and collaborate with other organisations, and government departments in planning culturally specific water safety initiatives. They are the winner of the 2024 Welcoming Cities Awards for Change.

Historically, there had been little or no co-ordinated approach to delivering water safety initiatives to multicultural communities in Wollongong. While Council lifeguard services delivered general water safety community education, there were limited water safety programs that supported multicultural communities. There was also inadequate mutual understanding of stakeholders’ roles.

Back in 2012, in response to local drownings of refugees and international students, Council worked to establish the Illawarra Water Safety Network. Facilitated by the NSW Office of Sport, the network brings together key players to advocate for the emerging needs of multicultural communities and to help deliver pilot programs in the region. Since that time, Wollongong City Council has worked strategically with aquatic services and community based multicultural organisations to ensure people are equipped with the information they need to stay safe in the water. As new funding, resources, and staffing opportunities arise, the council brings experience and understanding of the local area in terms of water safety and how to work with local multicultural communities. This is vital, as people with lower English proficiency and limited understanding of Australia’s waterways are more vulnerable. Multicultural groups are overrepresented in drowning deaths in Australia and have been for some time.

Community Development Worker, Vimala Colless, explains that after the drowning of a young Congolese boy at the local beach, both the Council and the community realised something needed to be done. She says partnerships and collaborations with organisations and other levels of government has been the key, and that council’s involvement has been vital. ‘Wollongong City Council has a Community Development Team dedicated to supporting diverse communities. We’ve always had good players in the community sector, but Council can just keep things happening, look at partnerships, strengthen engagement and innovation. Collaboration skills and network building are the invisible skills,’ she says.

Particular initiatives that have enacted change include:

  • The production of local multi-lingual beach safety resources with diverse imagery.
  • Targeted information and services for international students.
  • Delivering Local Government Multicultural Network Water Safety Forum to bring together community, government and community organisations state-wide, to share knowledge, highlight best practice and form new partnerships.
  • Supporting the formation of NSW CALD Water Safety Network which continues to support new research, share best practice, and identify needs.
  • Partnering with Surf Life Saving NSW in delivering the pilot rock fishing workshops, targeting local and Sydney communities.

Now in 2024, Wollongong City Council is a key player in culturally specific water safety initiatives and collaborations. While the number of deaths has reduced, people are still drowning. ‘It feels like two steps forward, one step back, over a long period of time,’ Vimala says. While the network has played an important role in preventing deaths, there is still work to be done and a need for strong and ongoing state and federal support. 

It is only fair that Wollongong’s new migrant, refugee and international student communities have access to opportunities and information that can save their lives. Learning about water safety fosters a sense of inclusion and being part of the community. For new migrants this is an important part of settlement in Wollongong. It can lead to new friendships and a better sense of wellbeing. More broadly, Council recognises that educated communities are more resilient and better prepared to respond to emergencies. As a coastal council this is particularly important when it comes to water safety.

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