EHF85C A water engineer uses copper divining rods to trace the course of an underground pipe (UK), a practice known as dowsing
A water engineer uses copper divining rods to trace the course of an underground pipe, a practice known as dowsing © Alamy

Several of Britain’s biggest water companies have said their engineers still use dowsing rods to divine the location of water pipes and leaks after being challenged by a science blogger.

The practice of dowsing, which dates from medieval times, involves using two L-shaped rods to find hidden water. It has been derided as superstition by many for centuries and has not been found to be reliable by scientists.

Sally Le Page, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford and a science YouTuber, asked the water companies if they used dowsing after her parents told her they had seen an engineer from Severn Trent “walking around holding two bent tent pegs to locate a pipe” in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Severn Trent said “some of our engineers still use them” but that it also uses drones and satellite data. “As long as the leak is found and repaired quickly we’re happy and so are our customers,” a spokesperson said.

Yorkshire Water said dowsing was practised by “one or two of its engineers but not on a systematic basis”.

Thames Water, which was fined £8.55m for missing leakage reduction targets by 47m litres per day in 2016/17, said it does not “train or instruct our engineers to use divining rods” and that it had upgraded leak detection methods this year. “They [the engineers] might use them to help find a pipe, but it would then be confirmed using other, modern techniques,” a spokesman said.

Ms Le Page noted in a piece published on the website Medium that there could be serious implications.

“You could just laugh this off,” she wrote. “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.”

Only Wessex Water and Northern Ireland Water said they did not use divining rods.

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