A walk in the Wirrabara forest, S. Australia
The person in the photo could be divining, but isn't.
Wirrabara Forest, South Australia

Water divining/dowsing/witching: the facts

My background; at the time of writing I had worked in the hydrogeology (underground water) field for about thirty years.

A hypothetical proposition: If I was able to find groundwater reliably in difficult areas by divining I would offer to do so, for a substantial fee. I would agree to pay the cost of drilling should the well fail, knowing that it would not fail. There are many places where water is hard to come by and is therefore very valuable; mining sites in desert or semi-desert areas for example. Anyone operating a mine and desperate for water would happily take up an offer like this; why should they not?

Any person able to reliably find water by divination could become very wealthy if he/she had even fair business acumen. Why are there no millionaire professional water diviners? An explanation that I have had from diviners is: "if a diviner charges too much for his services then he loses the gift" (another said that if a diviner charges anything he loses the gift); I leave it to the readers to evaluate this explanation. Surely the real answer has to be that no-one can find groundwater by any one of the divining methods with the sort of reliability that water diviners claim.

We think of ourselves as rational beings, but at this time, when science has reached enormous heights, so called 'new age' beliefs and other delusions are rife and most of the old superstitions are still active in some minority or other.

Many people mistakenly believe that a successful site for a well can be chosen by a gifted person walking over the land with a 'divining rod'. Belief in astrology and in the efficacy of many forms of medicine not supported by valid evidence is common. Water divining, like religion and the belief that wind turbines make people sick is just another delusion or superstition; a belief not supported by evidence.

Written about September 2001; placed on its own page 2004/02/25; last edited 2022/08/01
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

Eucalyptus cammaldulensis at Crystal Brook, S. Australia
A rare flow of water in the Crystal Brook, South Australia. Recharging the subsoil and perhaps an aquifer or two
Diviner; thanks to James Randi


The self-deception of being able to locate groundwater (underground water) by walking over the ground with either a forked stick, one or two bent wires, or a pendulum is generally called water divining in Australia and water dowsing or water witching in the USA. It is a baseless superstition that many people do not recognize as such.

The sketch of the diviner on the right is from James Randi's excellent page on divining.

What makes me believe that it doesn't work?

  1. I have worked in the groundwater field for about thirty years. I have never seen or heard of a convincing demonstration of divining.

  2. I have read of many scientifically conducted studies into divining. I have never read one that indicated that it worked.

  3. Groundwater is very common, almost ubiquitous. For example clays can contain up to 50% water, although they will not yield a significant amount to a well. Do divining rods discriminate between water contained in clays and water contained in sands, gravels, and fractured rocks? How?
    Wilpena area, Flinders Ranges, S. Australia
    How many deluded diviners have walked their wires or forked sticks across country like this in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia?

  4. Diviners usually talk of finding narrow underground streams. In most geological settings these do not exist. The many diviners that I have talked to seem to believe that these streams are less than a metre wide and are spaced every hundred metres or so across the landscape. If this were true, then in my work locating well sites – because I ignore the 'stream theory' – I would have a success rate in selecting well sites of less than one percent; however my success rate has been more like 40%. (Most often I selected well sites in the Australian desert.)

  5. There are only four known forces in nature: electromagnetism, gravity, the strong and weak nuclear forces. Of these, only the first two are significant over the distances people usually deal with. (The force exerted by wind or water currents is due to the electromagnetic forces between the electrons 'attached' to the molecules of the fluids and those of the body they are interacting with. A similar thing applies when one solid body presses against another: the force comes from negatively charged electrons reacting against each other.) Scientific instruments are much better at measuring these forces than are unassisted people. Why can't any instruments measure the 'force' that the diviner claims to feel? In all other fields Man has been able to produce instruments that are more sensitive and more reliable than the Human sense of feel.

  6. The Australian Skeptics Association has a standing US$10 000 prize for anyone who can demonstrate that they can effectively divine water beneath the ground. No-one has ever claimed the prize, although many have been tested after agreeing to the terms of the test. (The Australian Skeptics Web site referred to above also mentions a prize of $40 000, but seems unclear about whether this was a once only, or a standing offer.)

  7. The James Randi Eductional Foundation has a "One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge" "to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event". I believe that this includes water divining/dowsing/witching, but I am not sure on this point.
    Well fed woolly sheep and a full farm dam
    Well fed woolly sheep and a full farm dam. It's a good year at 'Elysium' in the Clare Valley of South Australia. Less call for diviners in a year like this.

    I had a very successful well drilled on this property on a site I chose myself. A diviner told me that I "must have been very lucky" to have success without a diviner to pick the site. After I sold another part of the property the new owner was told, by another diviner, where and how deep he would have to go to get good water; that hole was a dud.

  8. Then there is the old saying; "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich". If I could reliably divine groundwater I could be a very rich man. I'm sure numerous diviners are just as clever as I am, many would be more clever; why haven't they taken advantage of their skill? As an example, suppose a new mining town requires a water supply in a difficult groundwater area. If I had the skill I could contract to select sites at $2000 for each successful one, while I would pay the drilling costs for any failed wells. The mining company would be foolish to not accept my offer, and I could not fail.

  9. Wells drilled on divined sites have a poorer success rate than when the sites have been selected by rational means. See divining success rate below.

  10. There are no skills that come naturally to us and do not need training and practice; are we to believe that divining is unique in this way? We cannot walk, swim, garden, hunt, work wood, work steel, even dig a hole in the ground without learning how. Yet diviners, we are to believe, just have the 'knack'?


Recommended Internet sites on this subject

Australian Skeptics Divining Test

James Randi

The Skeptics Dictionary by Robert Todd Carroll. Carroll discusses the Scheune or barn test which some claim proves that there is some scientific validity in divining.

Other questions and curiosities...

A limestone sea cave, South Australia
A limestone sea cave in Southeastern South Australia
Limestone country like this is the only place that you may really find underground 'streams' that the diviners generally believe are all over the place.
  1. Does the 'force' diviners feel only propagate vertically? Why should it? Why shouldn't it propagate at 45 degrees from the vertical in some places and 60 degrees in others; or in different directions at different times? How can anyone know how it propagates? Yet, in my experience, all diviners assume it propagates vertically.

  2. I met a man who claimed to be able to divine for both precious opals and water. He said that the rods worked for opals in country where you would expect opals and worked for water where you would expect water. I find this incredible. Groundwater can be found almost anywhere, I have supervised the drilling of water wells in the opal mining country where this man divined for opals. (Opals are a form of silica, which is one of the most common substances in the earth's crust. How does the divining rod discriminate between opal and other forms of silica?) I think it was Pliny who recorded that some people believed they could divine for metals. How do these people learn to discriminate between – for example – water, iron, and aluminium, all of which occur almost everywhere. (Presumably divining rods didn't respond to aluminium until it was discovered. It is now known to be the third most common element in the Earth's crust.) Another diviner I came across in Coober Pedy tells the people who tour his demonstration opal mine that he can find 'slides' (possible minor geological faults) in which opal might be found. He even spends a substantial part of his mine tour showing people how to use divining rods to look for 'slides'.

  3. There are so many different methods of divining. Some people use a forked stick, some use 'L' shaped wires, some (mainly in the USA?) use a pendulum. Some claim to be able to divine over a map – they don't even need to go to the land where the water supply is required.

  4. Some people claim to be able to differentiate between fresh and saline groundwater. Yet how did they learn to recognize a salt stream and a fresh stream? Did they attend a water divining school where they were taken over a known salt stream at one place and a fresh stream at another place so that they could learn the difference? Or is it just some sort of 'gut feeling'?

  5. Others claim to be able to detect moving water, but not still water; apparently they don't know how very slowly most groundwater moves.

  6. One man who claimed to have the gift explained why diviners are never rich with the theory that when any diviner asks money for using his power he looses the power. What a wonderful and very convenient explanation!

Some errors of diviners

I believe the following may be of interest as examples of errors that I have heard from those who believe in divining.
  • Any diviner can find a water pipe. In fact tests such as those conducted by the Australian Skeptics show that diviners cannot detect water pipes.

  • A diviner told me that he detected two streams that cross each other. I asked him if they were at different depths. He said no, the same depth. How does one stream cross another? Can the reader imagine one surface stream (river, creek) crossing another?

Extracts from Geological Survey of South Australia Bulletin No. 23, 1946

Some divining history

From R.W. Raymond in a paper contained in the transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, 1883, and in United States Geological Survey Mineral Resources, 1882, wrote of divining, diviners and divining rods as follows:
Old divining rods
Divining rods dug out of an abandoned mine and exhibited at Zeehan Mining Museum in Tasmania.
"The Scythians, Persians, and Medes used them. Herodotus says that the Scythians detected perjurers by means of rods. The word rhabdomancy, originated by the Greeks, shows that they practiced this art; and the magic power of Minerva, Circe, and Hermes or Mercury is familiar to classical students. The lituus of the Romans, with which the augurs divined, was apparently an arched rod. Cicero who had himself been an augur says, in his treatise on divination, that he does not see how two augurs, meeting in the street, could look each other in the face without laughing. At the end of the first book of this treatise he quotes a couplet from the old Latin poet Ennius, representing a person from whom a diviner had demanded a fee as replying to this demand 'I will pay you out of the treasures which you enable me to find.'

Marco Polo reports the use of rods or arrows for divination throughout the Orient, and a later traveller describes it among the Turks. Tacitus says that the ancient Germans used for this purpose branches of fruit trees. One of their tribes, the Frisians, employed rods in church to detect murderers. Finally, if we may trust Gonzalez de Mendoza, the Chinese, who seem to have had everything before anybody else, used pieces of wood for divination."

Divining success rate: A major study in New South Wales, Australia

"There is no body of evidence, so far as the writer is aware, so valuable for assessing the claims of divining as that which has been gathered and recorded by the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission of New South Wales in connection with the shallow drilling carried out for settlers in central New South Wales. The drills are operated by the Commission, and the drill foreman has to report at the outset of the work whether or not the site has been divined. The settlers are not influenced in any way in the fixing of bore sites, and some of them have made their own selection, while others have taken the advice of diviners. From these reports the Commission has compiled the following table, which deals with all the boreholes drilled between 1918 and the end of 1943."
Classification of Boreholes Divined Not divined
Percent Number
Bores in which supplies of serviceable water, estimated at 100 gall. per hour (approx. 0.12 L/sec) or over, were obtained 1284 70.5 474 83.8
Bores in which supplies of serviceable water, estimated at less than 100 gall. per hour, were obtained 184 10.1 93 5.3
Bores in which supplies of unserviceable water were obtained 87 4.7 60 3.5
Bores which were absolute failures, no water of any kind being obtained 268 14.7 131 7.4
The districts within which these boreholes were drilled have a yearly rainfall ranging from nearly 30in. (app. 750mm) to under 15in. (app. 375mm) in the extreme west. The northern part of the area embracing the boreholes lies largely within the Great Artesian Basin, with a consequent material reduction in the risk of failure. Yet it will be seen that the proportion of failures at divined sites is nearly double that at sites not divined, while the percentage of highly successful drillings is far greater at sites not divined than that at the divined sites. The very large number of boreholes embraced in the tabulation corrects the deficiency that has been felt by those who have tried to discuss divining in the light of the records dealing with a small number of cases, some of which may have been selected, and omitting any reference to the failures that must certainly have occurred."

The table above shows a 71% success rate for divined wells in this area, and an 84% success rate for wells drilled on sites selected by some other method. It shows that diviners chose twice as many sites of dry wells than did those who used other methods. One should perhaps call in a diviner to select a site, and then make a point of drilling somewhere else to maximize one's chances of success!

What can we perceive?

Using our senses we can perceive:
  • Air movement;
  • The temperature of the air, or of objects we touch;
  • Vibrations;
  • Sounds;
  • Light;
  • Smells;
  • Tastes.
We have technologies that can do all these things much better than we can. We use:
  • Anemometers to accurately measure air movement;
  • Various types of thermometers to measure temperatures;
  • Seismometers to measure and record vibrations;
  • Electronic sound systems to measure and analyse sound;
  • Metres to measure visible, infra-red, ultra-violet and a huge range of other radiation;
  • Various chemical testing devices to examine substances in air and elsewhere with exquisite detail.
So, are we to believe, that while our technology can do all these things far better than our senses, yet we cannot even detect whatever it is that diviners use to tell them what is under the ground?

Related pages on this site


Religion and other superstitions

Rationality; not a strong trait in humans

Milestones in the development of human society Many milestones involved the putting aside of unfounded beliefs, such as religion and divining, and looking at the world rationally.

Self deception

Science, religion and delusion