Better idea: remove drowning from the game entirely
Lesser evil to what? Sucking and not being able to play the game without it?
Drowning is a terrible, not fun, unfair and annoying exploit. But this topic isn't about drowning.
Eh, drowning is needed to make insane+ starts not be awful and to not be randomly one shot because a rare spawned with chronomancy skills/other skills with instant travel time.
Also it sounds like you both want the same thing, just for different modes; something to streamline the beginning of the game to remove the possibility of rng making it impossible to survive early on.
One thing I suggested in the past is to have a sort of 'draft' system for equipment, where you would have ten different sets of items and you are able to pick one item out of each set (numbers can be adjusted as need be), with it being weighted to at least have a randart/unique or two as some of the choices in them.
An idea like this could be fiddled with initially for ID and then expanded to the main campaign, either having a lesser system in place for lower difficulties, or only having it kick in for higher ones. Though making a system like this for only one set of difficulties that aren't used by the majority would be kind of a waste.
I'd go on, but I've made my point and I don't want to hijack the thread with my own ideas any more than I have already.
Summary: Drowning is a necessary evil for higher difficulties and gives the basis for an idea on how to make ID a little better + the main campaign as a whole.