Attempts to bring down the country's drowning toll - one of the worst in the world - are being hampered by competition and disunity between key water safety organisations.
A review of the country's swim-and-survive programmes has painted a picture of a fragmented and dysfunctional sector.
The study, commissioned by the Accident Compensation Corporation, the Drowning Prevention Council and Sport New Zealand, found:
* Confusion among schools about available water safety education.
* Competition between programmes.
* Inconsistent achievement levels.
* Discord over the funding process.
It also appears key backers have withheld funding because of the sector's problems.
"Key funders, regional sports trusts, and local councils describe the water safety education sector as fragmented and fractured and voice concern that the main organisations within the sector have not been able to resolve the current situation," said the review.
The report is careful not to single out any specific organisation, but competition between opposing programmes run by Water Safety New Zealand, which is the national body responsible for water safety education, and Swimming New Zealand is identified as a hurdle to effective water safety education.
Water Safety New Zealand chief executive Matt Claridge said: "There have been several meetings held post-review release and the recommendations have been worked through. They have not been ignored."
Swimming New Zealand declined to comment on the report.
New Zealand's drowning toll is one of the worst in the developed world.
A report by Sport Auckland last year highlighted a decline in Auckland schoolchildren's swimming standards. It noted only 37 per cent of 10-year-olds can swim 50m, and only 21 per cent of 12-year-olds can swim 200m.
It also said schoolteachers believed the quality of children's swimming skills had steadily declined, and almost 50 per cent of teachers had not had any swimming training in the previous six years.
There are two main programmes that provide educational resources and professional support and set achievement standards for schools and local councils offering learn-to-swim programmes: Swimming NZ's State Kiwi Swim Safe programme and Water Safety NZ's Sealord Swim for Life programme.
However, competition between them means there is not a consistent achievement level between the two, said the review, by Isaac Advisory.
The two courses "leave room for confusion among schools, especially when they are not that aware of the different organisations operating in this space", the report said.
Teresa Stanley, business manager at WaterSafe Auckland, said things need to be cleared up.
"The sector needs to agree to some achievement levels, and whether we're looking at water competence or ... at the ability to learn to swim."
The review also said there had been claims the funding process was biased towards Water Safety New Zealand, which both competes for the financial assistance and administers it.
Lottery Grants Board funding for water safety education goes through a project review team administered by Water Safety New Zealand, which appoints team members.
Several organisations - including WaterSafe Auckland, Swimming NZ and Surf Life Saving NZ - then pitch for lottery funding along with Water Safety New Zealand.
Brett Sullivan, lifesaving manager at Surf Life Saving NZ, said the review's findings were an accurate reflection of the swim-and-survive sector and his group supported the need for a review.
"I think the one thing this report has shown is there needs to be a more integrated approach."
KEEPING FOCUS ON WATER SAFETY
* Deaths were at a record low of 87 in 2010, but jumped 41 per cent last year to 123.
* Third-highest cause of unintentional death in NZ.
* New Zealand's toll is one of the worst in the developed world.
In the gun
Water Safety NZ
* National body responsible for water safety education.
* Appoints the Project Review Team, which distributes $6 million in Lottery Grants Board funding to 36 member organisations.
* Designed and delivers the State Kiwi Swim Safe programme, which is supported by Surf Life Saving New Zealand and WaterSafe Auckland.
* Oversees 16 regional associations, 181 clubs and 25,000 members.