Water firms have hastily distanced themselves from their own admissions that they use divining rods to detect leaks amid widespread alarm at publicly listed companies using witchcraft.
Ten of the 12 water companies in the UK told the science blogger Sally Le Page, via Twitter, that they use the practice of water dowsing despite the lack of scientific evidence for its effectiveness.
But after the disclosure was first reported in the Guardian and picked up by media across the world, many of the companies have tried to row back on their admissions or blame rogue engineers.
One of them, Welsh Water, has even deleted a tweet in which it acknowledged using dowsing rods.
Le Page took the precaution of taking a screen shot of the Welsh Water’s admission, alongside a smiley face emoji, before the company erased the tweet.
How interesting: @DwrCymru deleted their tweet admitting to using water divination. Good job I screenshotted every response as they came in! https://t.co/9CVWixZMGt pic.twitter.com/5s7bcQhsm0
Other companies have not denied that some of their engineers are still use diving rods but have stressed that they do not spend money on the practice.
The clarification comes after Christopher Hassall, a specialist in water management at the Leeds University school of biology, expressed alarm at the continuing use of what he dismissed as witchcraft.
Hassal, who has worked with a number of water companies, including Yorkshire Water, to try to modernise “some very peculiar practices”, called for the water regulator, Ofwat, to intervene.
“If they are going to be passing the charges on to us for using dubious practices, then that’s something everyone in the UK should be concerned about,” he told the Guardian.
United Utilities is one of several of the companies involved to have since pointed out that its engineers are not issued with divining rods. After telling Le Page that the company does use them from “time to time”, it subsequently tweeted only “one or two of our engineers were interested enough to learn how to use them in their spare time”.
one or two of our engineers were interested enough to learn how to use them in their spare time. Thanks, Sharon
Anglian Water claims its admission of using divining rods and an apparent invitation to Le Page to demonstrate their effectiveness was misunderstood.
It has since said: “If you don’t know where a water pipe is, you have to dig to find out. Most will take an educated guess, some may add a little superstition as well. If we thought it was costing customers money then of course we’d clamp down, but it doesn’t.
“We suggested Sally come see our real leakage tech – drones and robots – and then compare to divining rods, which won’t work. We accept the tweet wasn’t explicit enough and we were probably too jovial today but we did it honestly and it’s been taken out of context.”
If you don’t know where a water pipe is, you have to dig to find out. Most will take an educated guess, some may add a little superstition as well. If we thought it was costing customers money then of course we’d clamp down, but it doesn’t.
We suggested Sally come see our real leakage tech – drones and robots, and then compare to divining rods, which won’t work. We accept the tweet wasn’t explicit enough & we were probably too jovial today but we did it honestly and it’s been taken out of context. Sorry. Emma
In a statement to the Guardian, the company added: “Using dowsing rods to find leaks is an old-fashioned method. We don’t spend money on it, or issue rods to our engineers.”
Le Page began asking questions about the practice when her parents reported seeing an engineer from Severn Trent “walking around holding two bent tent pegs to locate a pipe” near their home in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Severn Trent told the Mirror: “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.”
Southern Water took a similar line. It said: “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’ll continue [to] work hard to drive down our leakage figures.”
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 & fixing leaks as quickly as possible remains the most important thing to us, & we’ll continue work hard to drive down our leakage figures.
The industry’s trade body, Water UK, also blamed individual engineers. It said: “The reality is that water companies are spending millions of pounds each year on innovative leakage detection schemes such as thermal imaging drones, sonic listening devices and other high-tech electronic mapping equipment, which has helped reduce leakages by a third since the 1990s, and it’s unlikely that a few individuals doing some unofficial divining has had much impact.”
The physicist Helen Czerski, a research fellow in the department of mechanical engineering at University College London, tweeted that the companies should be ashamed of themselves.
. @thameswater @AnglianWater @stwater & the rest, you should be utterly ashamed of yourselves. Divining rods? IT’S 2017! I want my water supplied by people who understand evidence, not those who peddle witchcraft. https://t.co/BVLaz8xabt
Wessex Water and Northern Ireland Water were the only two company in the UK to state that they did not use water divining.
In a statement to the Guardian, Northern Ireland Water said: “NI Water has never used divining as a method to detect leakage although it does understand that prior to the formation of the company it was a technique which was used by some water technicians on a totally informal basis to locate pipes. NI Water uses a range of modern industry techniques and high quality equipment to locate leaks.”