A note on Water Divining by Eberhard Braune

A note on Water Divining by Eberhard Braune

23 Jul 2021
Home News A note on Water Divining by Eberhard Braune

Water divining

The purpose for this note is that I am moving to a smaller home and am looking for somebody interested in my water divining folder that has built up over the years.

Here first a bit of background. I am long retired after fourty years plus in water resource development and management, initially in the then South West Africa and from 1978 with the Department of Water Affairs in South Africa. Between 1989 and 2003, I was Director: Geohydrology in the Department, experiencing from 1994 the fresh appreciation of groundwater resources by a new government - a change from defining groundwater in legal terms as ‘private water’ before the new Water Act, 1998, and thereafter as a ‘significant resource’.
A lot of water drilling followed under the Reconstruction and Development Programme to provide a basic water service to some 15 000 villages that had never been served before. In this time there was obviously also a lot of public interest in our underground water resources, including many people approaching the Minister of Water Affairs with offers of help to locate the optimal drilling sites in different areas. The draft response to letters like this had to be provided by the Director: Geohydrology. Having grown up on a farm in South West Africa, I was not completely neutral on the subject of water divining. There is not a farm in this arid country without precious boreholes in its various cattle camps. And probably most of these boreholes have been sited by some lay person, often the farmer himself. There are hundreds of tales of successful divining / dowsing for underground water and, for obvious reasons, a lot less talk of the failures.
Local understanding of the landscape and of the rock outcrops as well as experience of past successes and failures obviously play a major part in the successes of lay people. My father, who worked in the Windhoek regional office of the CSIR, shared his experience of the testing of one the country’s most well-known diviners by Dr. van Zyl of the CSIR, one of South Africa’s leading geophysicists at the time. After extensive testing, Dr. van Zyl had to acknowledge that this diviner possessed an ability that current geophysical science could not explain. I personally experienced the opposite. A well-known diviner from Angola had fled the country during the unrest in 1974 and approached the Department of Water Affairs in Windhoek with his services. Geologists from the local Geological Survey, among them Dr. Jürgen Kirchner, set up the testing at various sites around Windhoek. The man from Angola failed miserably, so much so that we felt really sorry for him. It was obvious that the complex hard-rock environment around Windhoek was something he had never experienced before in the deep sandy aquifers in Angola.
My father had a keen interest in the subject and came upon a fascinating story during a major country-wide groundwater quality survey by the CSIR. Many of the boreholes encountered during the survey in the south of the country were recorded as ‘Uslar borehole’. Through his later follow-up enquiries, my father produced an article on the colonial administrator Rafael von Uslar, whom the Kaiser had sent to the German colony in 1906 because of his water divining skills. The colonial government had at the time established two drilling expeditions, one for the south and one for the north of the country. Both were supported by German geologists. These experienced particular problems with borehole siting for the newly established railway (steam) in the south. It is here where von Uslar was mostly employed. When von Uslar left the country after two years, he had provided sites for approximately 800 to be drilled boreholes. At the time it was recorded in 1911, 206 of these sites had been drilled, 171 of these successful – a success rate of over 80%.  
This has to be contrasted by scientific experience. Already in 1917 Dr. O.E. Meinzer, former Chief of the Ground Water Branch, U.S. Geological Survey, wrote: “It is doubtful whether so much investigation and discussion has been bestowed on any other subject with such absolute lack of positive results.” As a scientist employed in a government department, I obviously had to stick with what my groundwater science text books told me. Here an extract from a letter of March 2004, signed by the Director-General of Water Affairs and Forestry, to a Mr. Milner in Thabazimbi, who had approached Minister Kasrils with his skills.
“The Department cannot spend public money on something for which there is, as yet, no scientific foundation. At the same time significant progress has been made in the scientific location of groundwater in South Africa. During the last five years the Water Research Commission has had very successful projects on the location of groundwater in some of our most difficult terrains in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo Province.
Over the years diviners have been tested by reputable organisations like the United States Geological Survey, who in the end stated that further testing would be a misuse of public funds.
We were thus surprised when the Department of Water Affairs in Namibia in 1994 announced a training programme for water diviners. This was to be sponsored by the same Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) or German Association for Technical Cooperation, who sponsored the work sponsored by Prof. Betz, to which your attachment ‘Water Dowsing in Arid Regions’ also refers to. The purpose was to team up geological experts with experienced dowsers to try to improve success rates of groundwater detection. On enquiry, we established that nothing has come of this initiative in Namibia. The Department of Water Affairs there tested the preliminary results in Namibia to which the paper of Prof. Betz also refers. Its Geohydrology Division produced a paper in 1997, which indicated that they could find no evidence of the quoted successes and also expressed concern about an overall lack of attention to the sustainability of water resources. Prof. Betz had considerable hope for the Namibia experiment, because it would need a major experiment at a large number of different sites under highly controlled conditions and with an appropriate selection of diviners, to test how an unknown phenomenon contributes to the performance of borehole siting. This has not happened.
Our Department’s position remains that we cannot advocate the routine use of methods for groundwater prospecting that have not been scientifically tested. We would again like to encourage you to subject your records to a scientific evaluation.”
The folder contains quite a bit more of what Germans wanted to do in Namibia - also presented by Prof. Betz at the 52nd Conference of the German Geophysical Society in Leipzig.
Other items in the folder include:
  • Origins / history of divining / dowsing
  • Scientific discussions of divining
  • Extracts from South African stories – Lawrence Green, Eve Palmer
  • South African experience (Prof TW Gevers, Bulletins of the Department of Mines)
and lastly
  • a 1987 BSc Hons thesis of young Gordon Maclear, entitled ‘Water Divining – A Reality in Groundwater Prospecting’
His opening sentence: “The vast majority of boreholes sited in South Africa to date have been sited by water diviners (Miller, 1980).”

Eberhard Braune

Prof Eberhard Braune is an esteemed Honorary Member with the GWD.
Should you be interested, please contact us via [email protected] and we will put you in contact with Prof Eberhard Braune.