Ten out of the twelve water companies in the UK have admitted to using dowsing, a type of divination popular in the Middle Ages.

An image from a set of 8 extra-illustrated volumes of A tour in Wales by Thomas Pennant (1726-1798). Dowsing emerged sometime in the 15th century.

In an age when we can use magnets to detect underground ore, electrical current to detect aquifers, and ground penetrating radar for archaeological remains, walking around with a stick in your hand to find water sounds downright silly — yet that’s exactly what some prospectors in the UK are doing. Dowsing — or water witchery — involves using a Y-shaped or two L-shaped rods to locate groundwater. Needless to say, it’s a pseudoscience and it doesn’t work. Dowsers stand by their practice, but study after study has shown the technique to be nothing more than chance or explained by observations from ground surface clues. Simply put, it’s ancient witchcraft. Yet some companies still employ it.

The discovery that firms were still using water diviners was made by the science blogger Sally Le Page, who observed it firsthand. She wrote:

“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.”

Surprisingly, instead of denying or apologizing, the company stood by its technique, saying that it found it to be “just as effective as the new ones.”

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Shocked by this, LePage contacted the other 11 companies to ask them if they use dowsing. Just one, Wessex Water, said it did not use divining rods. Another, Northern Ireland Water had yet to reply. The other nine confirmed that they still use the divination in some areas. Simply stated, this isn’t acceptable. Christopher Hassall, a specialist in water management at the Leeds University School of Biology, told The Guardian:

“This isn’t a technique, it’s witchcraft. We work with water companies to enhance the sustainability of drinking water supplies and it is frustrating that there are still some very peculiar practices that are going on in these companies.”

He called for an eradication of the practice. Drinking water is a fundamental human right and we just can’t afford to leave that in the hand of dowsers.

“The statutory bodies need to be stepping in. It is analogous to using homeopathy and reiki on the NHS. These are unproven practices that waste time and money. Drinking water is a fundamental human necessity and something that the water companies should be managing as effectively and efficiently as possible without using these medieval witchcraft practices.”

Yet companies still say incredible things like this:

Both sides? I think we’ve heard that one before, haven’t we?