Science & Technology

Dowsing and your local water authority: 10 out of 12 find leaks or pipework with ‘water-witching’

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With the various technological advances society now benefits from, you may rightfully be surprised if upon losing water pressure in your home, you called your local water company and the engineer arrived to find a local leak with nothing more sophisticated than two metal rods. You may also be surprised if this engineer, working for a company that provides millions of households with water begins to walk around your area with the sticks held out-stretched claiming this will help him locate an underground leak.

Unfortunately, Medium journalist, Sally LePage has recently discovered that at least 10 local water authorities out of twelve in the UK are using the method of dowsing to locate leaks.  This is in an age when water leaks can be detected from satellites  via the spectral emissions of chlorine, yet paying customers in the UK are receiving a service with no basis in science. Dowsing is the detection of hidden substances or objects using a hand-held tool such as a wand, pendulum or, most commonly, rods. Dowsing is supposed to be done either remotely, via pendulums dangled over maps, or “in the field” most commonly with dowsing rods. Dowsers believe that whilst walking over buried objects, their divination tool reacts to that object. For rods, this means they cross or diverge.

Sally’s discovery came when her parents contacted their local water Severn Trent in order to locate a water main in the vicinity of their property. They were bemused, to say the least when they saw an engineer attempting to find a water main using dowsing rods. Sally contacted Severn Trent expecting to be told that this was a one-off, perhaps one engineer using a mediaeval method of locating water. What she was told instead, was that this was a common method Severn Trent utilized and one which they find to be as effective as “modern methods” as they mention in a tweet below. 

Spurred on by this Sally contacted several other water providers in the UK, and found that almost all of them confirmed that they used dowsing in some capacity to find leaks or supply pipes. These included:

Anglian Water, who seem to think the use of dowsing is acceptable as long as they don’t spend any money on it!

United Utilities, who don’t seem to see a problem with dowsing as a method of detecting water and even feature a video on their YouTube channel that explains the “divine power” of dowsing.


Welsh water, who again don’t really see the problem.

Other positive responses came from Thames Water, Scottish water, who insist the method is only used to detect pipework, Southern Water, Yorkshire Water and others. Northern Ireland Water and Wessex Water made it clear to Sally that they do not practice dowsing, but they were the only UK water companies to do so.

You may well be wondering like the representatives of these companies, what the issue with using dowsing is? The problem is this: dowsing or “water witching” has never actually shown to be an accurate method of detecting, well, anything. Let’s examine how proponents of dowsing claim it works and then the phenomena behind the method that invalidates it.

Dowsing: How they say it works versus how it actually works

Dowsing was particularly popular with the well-to-do in Edwardian society.

Divining as a practice to find water and other objects dates back a lot further than most people realise, with cave-paintings and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs attesting to use of the method in one form or another. It is supposed that the earliest uses of dowsing were to determine the will of God or some other deity. Worryingly, alongside the use of finding water and other substances and objects, the method was also often used to determine guilt or innocence in a trial. In the 15th Century modern dowsing practices spread across Europe from Germany and the published work “De Re Metallica” by Georg Bauer, which was much to the chagrin of the Church, who declared the practice “satanic”. It’s popularity in England, due to its uses in detecting coal, was stemmed by the witch-trials of the 17th Century with practitioners being labelled “water witches” and facing some rather unpleasant punishments and even death for its use. Despite this, Dowsing survived and rose to popularity again during the Victorian era as a result of the creation and boom in popularity of Spiritualism. The longevity of dowsing is often cited as evidence by believers in the practice that it must have some validity, an argument based on the “appeal to tradition” logical fallacy. Just because something has been long held to be true doesn’t necessarily make it so.
As is often the case with pseudoscience, it’s extremely hard to pin dowsers themselves down on how it actually works, what exactly is the mechanism that makes the copper rods cross, or diverge, when near water, or anything else for that matter? Even the British Dowsing society, who offer training courses in dowsing, offer little explanation on their website as to how dowsing may work. Skeptical investigator, Benjamin Radford suggests that there are as many explanations for the mechanism behind dowsing as there are dowsers themselves, with everything from magnetic fields to “psychic energy” being offered as possible explanations for the movement of the rods.

Of course, science suggests a far more mundane explanation for the movement of divining tools such as dowsing rods. The explanation even expands to the much feared and mythicised Ouija board, which believers, thanks to the hard work of horror writers, Hollywood movie studios and school-yard banter, many believe is a tool to contact the spirit world.

Definitely “no”

The actual mechanism behind the movement of the dowsing rod or the Ouija board planchette is unconscious, involuntary movement, known as the ideomotor effect.  Named by psychologist William B Carter in 1852. Despite being discovered over 160 years ago, the phenomena is still relatively unknown, likely why practices like divination are still considered supernatural or valid. the ideomotor effect (or action) describes the involuntary action the body takes when we think of an object or location. Th easiest way to exemplify this is to imagine driving down a stretch of road and looking off to an object on the left, if this object holds our attention for long enough, we may find that our hands are drifting the wheel to the left.

The fact that most of us don’t notice this involuntary action is because the effect is because it is generally quite minuscule. If this is the case how can the effect be so pronounced that two copper rods can cross each other?

The key here is to examine the rods themselves, the copper rod against the copper hand grip offers little resistance to any kind of turning force. Indeed, this lack of resistance is likely why the rods have been chosen as divination tools. Whilst the rods are held outstretched it can actually be quite difficult to keep them stable. This is because they exist in quite a delicate equilibrium state. The slightest turn of the wrist causes the rod to spin one way or the other.  Likewise, the pendulum, a weight on a length of string exists in a similarly precarious state. It takes very little to get it moving, whilst the planchette of the Ouija board experiences very little surface resistance from the board meaning it takes only the slightest application of force to set it in motion. This explains why all divination tools of this nature rely on some form of human contact. Dowsers and spiritualists might explain that this is as the person holding or touching the tool is acting as a medium for some external force, when the force is being supplied by the subject’s own involuntary muscle movement.

Testing dowsing

Unsurprisingly, for a phenomenon that has existed as long as dowsing has, there has been a multitude of tests undertaken to explain the observed effects. Quite often these are demonstrated by experienced dowsers taking novices out into the field. The novice is taken to a place where water has been previously found or can be clearly seen. They are told that there is water present and that if they have the dowsing “ability” their dowsing rods should cross, and, more often than not, they find that indeed they do cross.
In addition to this, positive results often occur with water-dowsing simply because in the UK we’re actually never too far away from a source of flowing water.

These positive results have been found to disappear when double-blinding protocols are used to ensure that the subjects have no idea if they are near water or not. Many well-conducted experiments have verified that the positive effects of dowsing disappear when the subject is not privy to positive results during the test, but perhaps the most damning evidence against the validity of dowsing has come from arch-sceptic and magician James Randi.

Between 1964 and 2015, Randi ran a challenge for anyone with supposed supernatural abilities to prove them under laboratory conditions, the prize at the time of its suspension stood at $1 million. Many entered the challenge, ranging from mediums, psychics, pseudoscientists, energy-manipulators to martial artists, but none succeeded to demonstrate their abilities beyond chance alone under experimental protocols to which they had agreed before the test was initiated. Amongst these applicants were a gaggle of dowsers, who claimed to be able to locate everything from the mundane, underground water to the bizarre, like locating lost hunting dogs!

One of the most striking examples of Randi’s dowsing tests came in 1979, when four dowsers,  Borga, Stanziola, Fontana and Senatore were tested in Italy. The dowsers agreed in advance to the protocol, which saw water pumped through three plastic pipes buried 50cm under the ground in a 10×10 metre area. A pipe was chosen at random for each test, and the dowsers were asked to trace using small flags the path of the flowing water. Each dowser was given three trials and it was required that 2/3 of their flags were placed within a 10cm radius of the active pipe. Not only did none of the dowsers pass any of their three trials, none actually agreed with the other as to the location of the pipes. (Randi, Flim-Flam, 307-325, 1982, Prometheus Books)

Outdated services?

The issue here is very clear, these companies which are publicly traded and funded by their customers, are providing services which aren’t just out-dated or old-fashioned but can be shown to be demonstrably false. If you are paying your water rates to one of these companies, you may well want to put pressure on them to immediately remove dowsing rods from the vans of their engineers. We wouldn’t accept an electrical engineer fixing a fault in our home by burying a potato by the moonlight, why should we accept water companies blatantly using superstition to identify issues with our water supply? It’s a real shame that Randi’s million dollar challenge is no longer active, perhaps these water companies could then collect some of their profit from entering rather than from paying customers paying for balderdash and superstition.