How does water divining work? (Answer: not like how you expect)

Gushes of waterTechnology really is a modern day wonder – we can check emails while on the go, teenagers can message on their mobiles, and pretty much anyone can see their loved ones thousands of miles away on apps such as Skype and Viber. Of course, things weren’t always that way and long before the silicon chip, technology was rather more basic. And some of it involved solving problems with twigs and pendula.

Nowadays, water engineers can use a variety of hi-tech technologies to find underground water. For example, acoustic doppler current profilers detect water movement within a pipe; electrical resistivity tomography devices detect groundwater by through electrified wires dropped into the ground, and magnetic resonance sounding equipment finds underground water using the technology of MRI scanners.

But before all this wizardry existed, people depended on dowsing (otherwise known as water divining) to ‘see’ into the ground and locate things such as water wells, hidden metal, oil, buried treasure and even lost golf balls! And rather than using equipment that costs a bucket load, modern day dowsers use the same technology: simply placing either two bent rods or a forked stick in front of them and walk over a target area to ‘find’ water. When the stem of the twig pulls towards the ground or the two rods cross over, it indicates that water is near. This process can then be repeated from a different direction to pinpoint the location.

Dowsing has been practiced for millennia and, as with anything with such a history, there are many enthusiasts who swear that it works; some water engineers even use it in their professional work. Dowsing is a practice that has also been extended to finding missing people (although a few more items are needed, namely a map and a pendulum) and is described as map dowsing.

Under scientific testing, however, all forms of dowsing seems to work no better than chance. In particular, water diviners have repeatedly been unable to detect underground water in controlled tests.

But finding underground water relies not just on technology, but on an understanding of the land – a realisation that certain areas are more likely to accumulate water than others. Such knowledge of geology and the landscape is used by hydrologists and dowsers alike – whether they realise it or not. And so most scientists argue that the dowser’s twigs or rods move not through detection of ‘earthrays’ (the force that dowsers believe exist) but through the ideomotor effect, whereby the dowser unknowingly moves the device. Much like how tears can be brought on emotions, tiny ideomotor movements and twitches are driven by unconscious beliefs, in just the same way that involuntary hand movements drive an Ouija board reading.

It is likely that an experienced water dowser will have learnt from previous failures and successes in which areas underground water commonly occurs – in the same way a hydrologist can make a best guess from their understanding of geology. And so while a hydrologist may say that they have a hunch about underground water, a dowser will let it come out in their sticks.

Answer By Dr Stu and Chloe Westley

Read more: Water Dowsing by USGS (a thorough appraisal)

Photo Credit: Iain Browne via Compfight cc

Article by Stuart Farrimond

September 22, 2014

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at or his poncy personal website Here's his .

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