Say waaaat(er)? The UK's biggest water companies still use dowsing rods

Emma Haslett
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Dowsing Club
Severn Trent technicians last week (Source: Getty)

We may live in an age of driverless cars and super-fast broadband, but it turns out some of Britain's largest utility companies still have a determinedly old-school way to find water: dowsing.

The technique, invented almost 500 years ago, involves using a v-shaped rod and the mystical power of the human mind to detect underground water (although the British Society of Dowsers says angle rods, a wand or a pendulum can also be used). When a dowser walks over hidden water, the rods are said to magically cross or point at the spot where the water runs under the ground.

But in a Medium post, Oxford evolutionary biologist Sally Le Page revealed most UK water companies - including FTSE 100-listed Severn Trent and United Utilities - still use the practice.

Indeed, a majority of UK water giants confirmed on Twitter that some of their technicians used it.

Le Page said she had been alerted to the fact the technique was still in use when her parents tried to install a new water pipe.

[It] required knowing where the existing mains water pipes were underground. After calling out a technician from Severn Trent, the water company that services the whole of the Midlands, my parents couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the man from Severn Trent slowly walking around holding two “bent tent pegs” to locate the pipe.

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A spokesperson from the company confirmed her parents hadn't been imagining it (although a spokesperson for the company could not be reached by City A.M. this afternoon):

While Northern Ireland Water and Wessex Water said their technicians don't use dowsing, spokespeople for United Utilities, Southern Water, Anglian Water and Yorkshire Water confirmed some do when they were contacted by City A.M. (although they tend to do it off their own backs). They all took pains to point out it is not a technique their technicians rely on - they tend to use modern methods, such as thermal imaging and robots.

A spokesperson for United Utilities said: “Our engineers use modern electronic techniques to locate pipes and leaks and we’re also looking at new innovations like satellite technology. We don’t issue our teams with divining rods. However, one or two of our engineers were interested enough to learn how to use them in their spare time.”

An Anglian Water spokesperson said: “Using dowsing rods to find leaks is an old–fashioned method. We don't spend money on it, or issue rods to our engineers."

Meanwhile, Southern Water said it spends £14m a year on "cutting-edge leakage detection technology".

“It’s not company policy to use dowsing rods, although it’s possible some of our leakage technicians may use them. However it’s done, finding and fixing leaks as quickly as possible remains the most important thing to us, and we will continue work hard to drive down our leakage figures," it added.

Finally, Dave Stevenson, head of water distribution at Yorkshire Water, said: ‘We prefer to explore high-tech solutions to help us tackle leakage such as satellite detection, drones to survey our pipework, and thousands of acoustic listening devices that will help us identify leaks in our underground network and fix them more quickly and effectively.

"Divining sticks are rarely used these days with so much better, twenty-first century technology out there.’

Still - Le Page added that the technology was developed 450 years ago.

"[Scientists now] understand that this phenomenon is caused by the ‘ideomotor effect’, the same effect that makes the glass on a Ouija board move without anyone pushing it," she said.

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