Water is expensive: the average British household water bill is £395, a 1.54 per cent increase from last year, according to Love Money.

Where’s all your money going? On lots of important things, obviously. Also, a little is going on ‘magic’. Water wizards? Yes.

Oxford University PhD student Sally Le Page has written a hugely entertaining – but quite worrying – piece about discovering Severn Trent staff still use dowsing rods to find out where to dig.

In a blog post, Sally writes: “My parents were trying to install a new water pipe from the mains, which 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.”

So, dowsing rods. Or ‘divining’. It’s a bit like witchcraft, a medieval technique invented 450 years ago to source water underground.

The practice involves walking around holding two L-shaped rods parallel to each other. Supposedly, when you tread over water, the sticks ‘magically’ cross.

Sally explains that there is absolutely no scientific evidence that divining works. It’s comparable to playing a Ouija board in that it is complete nonsense.

The phenomenon that makes us think these water wands move of their own accord is called the ideomotor effect, as this helpful BBC article says.

“Ouija board cups and dowsing wands – just two examples of mystical items that seem to move of their own accord, when they are really being moved by the people holding them,” it reads.

“The only mystery is not one of a connection to the spirit world, but of why we can make movements and yet not realise that we’re making them.”

Simply, it’s just a trick of the mind. And yet, as Sally has today found out, ten of 12 UK water companies deploy technicians who use, or sometimes use, dowsing rods as part of their work, be it fixing leaks or installing pipes.


After writing her post about Severn Trent, Sally asked all the other firms whether they too dip their toes in the fantastical waters of wizardry.

We asked the first, Severn Trent, to expand. A spokesman told Mirror Online: “We use detailed mapping systems to identify where our network of pipes are which helps us to react quickly when leaks and bursts happen.

“To track down exactly where leaks on our pipes are we use an array of cutting-edge technology, just recently we’ve begun using satellite data and imagery to monitor our pipes from space and we regularly use drones to spot leaks from the air.

“We don’t issue divining rods to our engineers but we believe some of our engineers use them. As long as the leak is found and repaired quickly – by whatever means – we’re happy and so are our customers.”

It’s important to note then that the company doesn’t actively send out technicians with tools more closely aligned to witchcraft. However, it is aware of the odd goings on.

As are these nine other companies:

  • Yorkshire Water
  • Thames Water
  • South West Water
  • Anglian Water
  • Northumbrian Water
  • Welsh Water
  • Scottish Water
  • Southern Water
  • United Utilities

The only two that don’t are Wessex Water and Northern Ireland Water.

All this is funny. But it’s also infuriating. These firms charge a lot of money; they look after millions of people’s resources.

“Divine powers”

Sally adds: “I can’t state this enough: there is no scientifically rigorous, doubly blind evidence that divining rods work… Even now, any explanations of water dowsing rely on the supernatural, and in 2017, I am astonished to find two water companies relying on (and paying for) the supernatural to find underground pipes.

“You could just laugh this off. Isn’t it a bit silly that big companies are still using magic to do their jobs!

“Except if they get it wrong, that could mean the difference between an entire town having safe drinking water or not. If they use divining rods to decide that there isn’t a pipe underneath and so it’s safe to dig there, they could rupture the mains water supply for thousands of people.

“Not to mention the cost of sending out a ‘trained’ technician to examine a site for several hours, only to get no valuable information. Money that comes from the UK homeowners who have no choice over which water company to use.”

Read Sally’s full article here. We’ve contacted Sally and are waiting for a reply.

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Joshua Barrie

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