Hydrology and Water Resources within WMO—the Birth of a Programme

by Arthur Askew*


Sociologists debate at great length the relevant importance of hereditary and environmental factors in the development of human beings. Likewise, much can be said on the relative significance for an institution of what it inherits from its origins and the scientific and administrative environment in which it has developed over the years.

In the case of the hydrology programme within WMO, we must look first to the state of hydrology as a science and practice during the second half of the 19th century. The pioneering work of Pierre Perrault and others in the 17th and 18th centuries had led to a basic understanding of the major principles governing the hydrological cycle as sought by those interested in explaining natural phenomena. As the industrial revolution took hold, there was a need for the practical application of this knowledge. The engineers of the day concentrated on solving local problems and so practice was dominated by standard codes set by national bodies and applied at a very local level. No-one saw any need to formally coordinate such practices at international level.

The same desire to understand natural phenomena led to the development of meteorology as a scientific discipline but, in this case, the global context was evident throughout and from the very start. The First International Meteorological Congress was held in Vienna in September 1873 and it was there that the International Meteorological Organization was established: the direct precursor of WMO. Eight years before, the first International Telegraph Convention was signed in Paris and the International Telegraph Union was established: the precursor of the present International Telecommunications Union (ITU). In September 1874 in Bern, Switzerland, this pair of organizations was joined by a third, the General Postal Union: soon to be renamed the Universal Postal Union (UPU).

It is interesting to note that all three organizations were born within the space of eight years with very similar aims: ITU to define a message and how it was to be transmitted; WMO to define meteorological data and the format in which they were to be sent; and UPU to define the mail and who would pay for its delivery. They were founded some 50 years before the League of Nations and 75 years before the United Nations Organization. They later took on intergovernmental status and were included within the United Nations system, where they can rightly be said to be its oldest members. No-one can deny the importance worldwide of the work of the World Health Organization or of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), but doctors, teachers and scientists do not depend on these institutions for their very existence to the same extent as global telecommunications, meteorology and the postal services depended on—and still depend on—ITU, IMO/WMO and UPU.

This brief digression into the history of WMO and its essential role in the practice of meteorology is important, because it emphasizes the extent to which, by the start of the 20th century, the Organization had become a central feature of meteorology, while, at the same time, it was unknown to the vast majority of hydrologists working, as they did, at national and provincial level.

Hydrology: to be or not to be?

IMO was not the outcome of some high-level decision taken by well-meaning officials on behalf of the meteorological community. It was, and WMO still is, an organization founded from the bottom up by its Members to serve the purposes that they identify and so, as the years went by, the National Meteorological Services (NMSs) that had founded IMO discovered that their Organization could play a valuable role in areas quite far from that for which it had originally set up and so they revised its programme of work to include new topics.

In about one-third of countries, the operational aspects of meteorology and hydrology are the responsibility of one agency, namely the National Hydrometeorological Service. In due course, it was inevitable that IMO should undertake activities in the field of hydrology and so, when the Organization established a series of technical commissions, one was a Commission for Hydrology (CHy), set up in 1946. It held one session in Toronto, Canada, in 1947 with an agenda covering such topics as cooperation between National Hydrological Services (NHSs) and NMSs, regional cooperation in hydrology and an international glossary of terms.

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The UNO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and UNESCO were all established in 1945 and WHO was founded in 1948. At that time, there was pressure for IMO to join this family of organizations, but for this it had to become governmental and this raised many questions and concerns within the Organization. As a result, it was not until 1950 that the decision was taken to establish WMO as a full intergovernmental organization. At the time of the first WMO Congress (Paris, 1951) CHy had hardly had time to gather any momentum and had no substantial results to report. The president of the Commission, Dr Uryvaev (USSR), was invited to Cg-I but did not attend and no such invitation was sent to the vice-president, Mr Bernard (USA). Very few permanent representatives (PRs) who attended had any first–hand knowledge of hydrology. It is not surprising, therefore, that, when a call was made to reduce the number of technical commissions, there was no-one to defend the interests of CHy and it was dropped from the list.

Cg-I to Cg-III: first thoughts

Regional associations (RAs) and the Commission for Climatology (CCl) discussed hydrological matters during their sessions in the early days of WMO but no real move was made to re-introduce hydrology until 1954, when the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) recommended that the UN specialized agencies give more attention to water resources management, including the collection of hydrological data, and explicitly proposed that WMO fulfil this role in cooperation with NHSs and the International Association of Scientific Hydrology, which later changed its name to the International Association of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS). As a consequence, the Secretary General proposed to Cg-II (1955) that WMO take on this responsibility.

At this time, the WMO Convention could easily have been changed to make the Organization responsible for all meteorological and water resource matters. No other agency had WMO’s ability to take on this role and they would not have challenged the decision, but, instead, Congress accepted only that WMO be responsible for those aspects “which fall in the common ground between meteorology and hydrology”. The Executive Committee (EC) meeting immediately after Cg-II had a somewhat broader view and set up the Panel on Water Resources Development to draft proposals for future water activities of the Organization. The six members of this Panel were all well-known leaders in their fields. They included Max Kohler (USA), Gilbert White nominated by CCl and Léon Tison, Secretary-General of IAHS. It is interesting to note that the Panel was chaired by Oliver Ashford, a member of the WMO Secretariat.

These, then, were the origins of the Hydrology and Water Resources (HWR) Programme of WMO: a good early start, followed by a sudden stop and then a slow and hesitant re-start within, as we shall see later, a challenging environment.

The Panel recommended that “WMO should assume responsibilities in the field of hydrology similar to its present responsibilities in the field of meteorology” and that the Convention should be changed to put NHSs on the same footing as NMSs. When it met in 1957, EC decided to seek the views of Members on this matter. These were split and so, one year later, EC opted for WMO accepting responsibility in all aspects of hydrology “which involve meteorological considerations” and recommended that Congress establish a Commission for Hydrology, but there was no mention of changing the Convention. The same year, high-level meetings within the UN explicitly asked WMO to take responsibility for a broad range of surface water matters and IAHS and the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics later added their weight to this proposal.

Throughout the 50 years since CHy was established, the Commission has elected seven presidents and 11 vice-presidents and the HWR Department in the Secretariat has been headed by seven Directors. Each of these 25 hydrologists has in his own way promoted hydrology within WMO and led the Commission and the small but dedicated group within the Secretariat that has worked to support the many national experts on which depend the activities of the Organization in this field. The diagram below summarizes the posts held by the leading figures in this history.

It would take a whole book to do credit to the achievements of each of these individuals and their unique contributions to the whole. Within the confines of this one brief article, mention is made only of Max Kohler and Jerry Němec by name.

Without Max’s persistent diplomacy and foresight, the re-birth of the WMO Commission for Hydrology would have been seriously delayed with major consequences for the future HWR Programme. The more “colourful” approach of Jerry Němec became the hallmark of WMO’s Hydrology and Water Resources Programme (HWRP) over the next 20 years. Without him, the HWR Department would not have become the pro-active and effective force that it did.

ll subsequent presidents and directors have bene ted from the principles and practices laid down in the late 1960s and early 1970s and all would acknowledge their debt to these two predecessors. 

Cg-III to Cg-IV: a commission, but on what?

With all this internal preparatory work and external encouragement, one would have expected Cg-III (1959) to re-launch WMO as a new joint meteorological/hydrological agency—but no, this was not to be. Congress allowed WMO only to co­or­dinate activities in “hydrological meteorology”. So, while the hydro­logical community applauded the re-establishment of a commission, it bore the title “for Hydrological Meteorology” and, as Congress failed to define this term, problems arose that lasted for some years.

Once again, WMO had let pass a golden opportunity to establish itself as the leading UN agency in the field of geophysics and natural resources, much to the frustration of those who had worked so hard to develop the proposals. It is all too easy to be critical of these decisions of Congress, but one should keep in mind the origins of the Organization and the environment in which it was developing its programmes.

If WMO were to take on wide-ranging responsibilities in freshwater, then the water community would quite rightly seek representation on the Organization’s governing bodies. PRs participate in discussions at Congress and EC to seek the best for the Organization as a whole and as representatives of their countries. In so doing, they draw on their experiences at national level. However, no country has one single national agency responsible for all freshwater matters and so, even if the PRs were willing to share authority over WMO with the hydrologists, it was not at all clear as to who their natural partners would be. One thing was sure: any one of the government water departments was likely to be more powerful, both financially and politically, than the NMS. In the eyes of many PRs, therefore, sharing authority would not only dilute the aims and identity of WMO but would raise the spectre of the Organization becoming dominated by high-level political interests: precisely the fears that delayed IMO from agreeing to become governmental back in 1945.

Therefore, while it is easy to dismiss many of the arguments at Cg-III against a greater involvement in hydrology, the outcome should not have been unexpected, given the risk of such a move in the eyes of those who held the voting power. These arguments have been reviewed at some length here because they have remained pertinent throughout the following 50 years and have led to EC and Congress rejecting several proposals of a similar nature on a number of subsequent occasions.

By September 1959, 30 Members had nominated experts to serve on the Commission and so it was formally established with Max Kohler elected as its first president and Léon Tison (Belgium), still Secretary-General of IAHS, as its vice-president. Its first session was held in Washington DC in 1961. It established seven working groups and adopted a number of recommendations. However, the compromise decision of Cg-III hung over the session in that it spent a good deal of valuable time discussing the meaning of the term “hydrological meteorology”. It finally decided to concentrate its activities on problems of a meteorological nature and on closely related questions of surface water and water balances, thus excluding such topics as sediment, groundwater and water quality.

If we put aside its decisions regarding the Commission, it is interesting to note that, during the 1950s and 1960s, WMO responded well to both the earlier call of ECOSOC within the field of technical cooperation and to individual requests of Members for advice on a broad range of freshwater matters.

In the early 1960s, leading members of IAHS, noting the considerable success of the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958) and that it had not included hydrology, promoted the idea of an International Hydrological Decade (IHD). Close links between IAHS and WMO’s hydrological programme naturally led to the proposal that WMO should take the lead and this was discussed in the corridors of WMO during EC. However, while it may have been mentioned in debate on the Organization’s hydrology programme, no reference to it can be found in the reports of EC sessions prior to 1962. The informal feedback was that WMO would not be prepared to take on the responsibility of leading such a major international initiative—which is not so surprising given that it had still to agree on its own activities in this field.

UNESCO was reviewing the future of its long-established arid lands programme and the proposal for an IHD was more warmly received in Paris. Accordingly, the Secretariat of the Decade was hosted by UNESCO. It was clearly defined as an intergovernmental and inter-agency programme, where each UN agency or NGO would implement those activities which were close to its expertise. The report of EC‑XIV (1962) refers to UNESCO as overseeing the launch of the Decade. The next year, Cg-IV was informed of this development and many PRs noted with some surprise that many topics they had considered to lie within the field of meteorology were being promoted within the IHD.

Such developments also convinced Congress of the importance of taking a broader approach to hydrology and so the terms of reference of the Commission were revised to suit, its name was changed to Commission for Hydrometeorology, and Congress made arrangements for WMO to be actively involved in the Decade. Accordingly, EC set up a WMO Panel of Experts for the IHD which met annually over the next 10 years. It oversaw the substantial amount of work that WMO undertook alone and in cooperation with other UN agencies and certain NGOs as the Organization’s contribution to the Decade.

Cg-IV to Cg-VI: the IHD challenge

The second session of CHy was held in Warsaw in 1964 and was yet again faced with problems. The first related to its scope of work because, depending on the language and national practice, the term “hydrometeorology” could mean hydrology plus meteorology or the restricted range of topics which fall within both hydrology and meteorology. In addition, the IHD was on the verge of being launched and it was necessary to define the relation between WMO’s work for the Decade and CHy’s own programme of activities. This obliged the Commission to define the specific areas of hydrology that were of particular interest to WMO as specified by Congress: not an easy exercise. CHy finally agreed on its programme of work, established 10 working groups and re-elected Max Kohler as its president.

The Decade was launched in 1965 and Cg-V, meeting in 1967, endorsed the part taken by WMO in its programme of work and offered support for an expansion of this role.

The third session of CHy took place in Geneva in 1968. While the IHD had given UNESCO its entry into international hydrology, it had also challenged WMO to define more clearly its own area of responsibility, which was complicated by continued confusion over the interpretation of the term “hydrometeorology”. CHy-III therefore proposed that the Commission change its name again, this time to “Commission for Hydrology” and that WMO assume responsibility for the operational aspects of the land phase of the hydrological cycle, including the collection, storage and publication of hydrological data. CHy also adopted a range of activities which were to remain its principal focus for the next 30 plus years, namely:

  • Hydrological network design and data collection;
  • Data storage and analysis;
  • Application of hydrological data in water resources management;
  • Flood forecasting;
  • Terminology and the setting of standards.

CHy-III brought to an end the period of 10 years in which Max Kohler had skilfully steered the hydrological programme of WMO from being an IMO orphan to becoming a full programme of WMO. Secretariat support was at first provided by two or three staff members working under the title “applications of meteorology”. By the end of this period, a separate unit had been established within the WMO Secretariat to be responsible for hydrology and water resources. This was headed by Jaromír (Jerry) Němec (Czechoslovakia).

In 1968, CHy-III discussed plans for a Mid-Decade Conference which would not only review progress with the Decade and plan its final years, but would also discuss a long-term plan of international action in the field of hydrology. WMO had played a role in international hydrology since 1947 whereas, prior to the Decade, the closest that UNESCO had come to a programme on freshwater was that on arid lands. Therefore, a major question hung over WMO-UNESCO relations: would UNESCO remain active in hydrology once the Decade was over and, if so, what role would it claim for itself?

The Mid-Decade Conference was duly held in Paris in 1969. It gave WMO an opportunity to publicize the many projects it was undertaking as a contribution to the IHD, but it also brought to the surface a series of problems resulting from the potential for duplication between WMO and UNESCO and relations, particularly between the two Secretariats, became quite strained. There is no denying that the personalities of key figures played a role in this, but so also did the lack of coordination at national level between those who represented countries on the governing bodies of the two Organizations.

In his speech at the opening of the Conference, the Director General of UNESCO stated “I shall welcome any suggestion for setting up some permanent system of international cooperation, for scientific hydrology as a whole, which, while fitting into the legal structure of UNESCO, would be sufficiently open and flexible to allow for the broadest possible participation”. Sir Arthur Davies, Secretary-General of WMO from 1955 to 1979, also addressed the opening session and it is reported that he remarked afterwards: “things didn’t seem to be heading in the direction we had originally thought they should”.

In 1968, CHy-III proposed that an intergovernmental Technical Conference of Hydrological and Meteo­rological Services be convened to seek ways to strengthen the role of NHSs in WMO. The Conference was held in Geneva in 1970. Apart from a number of important technical recommendations, in particular on the interface between hydrological and meteorological services, the Conference recommended the establishment of an Advisory Committee on Operational Hydrology. This proposal was accepted by Cg‑VI in 1971 with the aim of advising EC and Congress on the principles of collaboration between NHSs at regional and international levels and on the planning of WMO’s programme in hydrology and water resources.

Sixth Congress also re-defined WMO’s field of responsibility in freshwater as “operational hydrology”, including groundwater, soil moisture, sediment transport and water quality. In addition, as requested by CHy‑III, it finally gave the Commission its present title, dropping the term “hydrometeorology” as too limiting and confusing. Also in 1971, WMO hosted the annual session of the Coordinating Council for the IHD at the Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, by which time relations between WMO and UNESCO were slowly improving.

Cg-VI to Cg-VII: coming of age

CHy-IV was held in April 1972 in Buenos Aires. It re-organized the work of the Commission and its contributions to the IHD to fit with the new scope of work agreed by Congress and appointed working groups and rapporteurs, and launched a number of projects to suit.

It is worth noting that WMO and UNESCO were not the only UN agencies to develop programmes in freshwater during the 1950s and 1960s. Most other agencies were concerned with the use of water for various purposes: FAO for agriculture; WHO for drinking water and sanitation; the UN regional economic commissions naturally viewed water as an economic resource; and, for the International Atomic Energy Agency, water was a coolant for power stations or a liquid that could be monitored using radio-active tracers. Likewise, many NGOs had an interest in water. WMO cooperated with all these organizations as the occasion demanded but, from the very beginning, WMO’s closest partners have always been UNESCO and IAHS for reasons that will be clear from the preceding sections of this article.

It is said that Sir Arthur Davies had a vision of a WMO with a wider mandate but could not persuade EC members to support this view and was disappointed to see UNESCO take responsibility for oceanography and then, during and following the IHD, also for scientific hydrology. Some had hoped, even expected, that WMO would assume the major role in freshwater after the Decade but, as UNESCO had overseen the establishment of the IHD Coordinating Council and an extensive network of National Committees for the IHD, it was only to be expected that those involved in this major intergovernmental structure should want to see it continue.

Accordingly, it became clear during the second half of the Decade that UNESCO would maintain a major role in freshwater in the UN system. With ever improving relations between WMO and UNESCO at both formal and personal levels, an amicable agreement was worked out by which WMO would maintain, even strengthen, its role in what Congress had defined as operational hydrology, while UNESCO would focus on scientific hydrology.

The fact that UNESCO chose to use the governmental mechanism set up to serve the IHD as the basis for the oversight of its own subsequent International Hydrological Programme (IHP) led to some confusion, especially in the late 1970s but, even well into the 1980s. It was not uncommon for national delegates to ask why WMO did not contribute as much to the IHP as it had done to the IHD. They had not realized that the IHP was not an inter-agency programme but entirely a UNESCO matter and that, since 1975, the agencies that had contributed to the IHD now implemented their own independent programmes.

A safeguard against overlap or conflict of interest between the programmes of WMO and UNESCO was established in the form of an inter-agency agreement approved by the executive bodies of both agencies. In this, they would each send representatives to attend meetings of the other’s constituent bodies, they would convene joint intergovernmental conferences every five to six years to advise on their programmes; the chairs of their respective commissions, CHy in the case of WMO, would meet on an annual basis with the Secretariats to lay more detailed plans for joint action. For the past 30 years, this mechanism has worked with considerable success to avoid the pitfalls of the past. It must be said, however, that no coordinating mechanism can guarantee good relations between organizations: only mutual respect and good personal relations between the individuals concerned can ensure that and WMO’s long-term close relationship with UNESCO in the field of freshwater is a good example of this.

The International Conference on the Results of the IHD was jointly convened by UNESCO and WMO in 1974. WMO was able to report on the 60 IHD projects that it had implemented as its contribution to the Decade, many resulting in published technical publications that were of great value to NHSs. The IHD had provided a welcome boost to international co-operation in freshwater and so, once the Decade was over, WMO set about redesigning its water programme to suit this new environment.

While the Decade had given WMO’s work in freshwater a new vitality and visibility, its core activities remained concentrated on the preparation of international guidance in operational hydrology, in particular a series of editions of the Guide to Hydrological Practices and manuals on various technical subjects, the publication of technical notes on more specific topics, the convening of technical conferences (often in cooperation with IAHS or other organizations) and a number of projects designed to compare the performance of hydrological technology such as raingauges, streamgauges, evaporimeters and also of hydrological models. While the technology and operational practice have changed remarkably over the years, in particular as a result of the ever-wider use of computers, the pattern of work of CHy and the WMO Secretariat stayed largely unchanged until the end of the 20th century.

Unlike NMSs, NHSs have no need to standardize their measuring or data handling techniques, except on shared river basins or aquifers. As a result, national traditions and standards grew up which often differed widely between countries, the developed countries being self-sufficient and the developing countries suffering from a real lack of guidance and experience, quite apart from financial problems. However, by assuming a similar pattern of work in hydrology as it played in meteorology, WMO has facilitated an exchange of information and technology which has not only served to bring developing countries fully into the realm of 21st century hydrology, but has also offered NHSs in developed countries the opportunity to compare notes with their colleagues from other developed countries and so improve their own practices.

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s no-one talked of globalization and only a few visionaries saw hydrology as a global study but, thanks to the work of WMO, those working in operational hydrology developed into a global community as a counterpart to the international communities focused on the hydrological sciences under the auspices of IAHS and UNESCO.

All of these developments eventually fed into Cg-VII in 1975, which approved a change to the WMO Convention—a rare and significant event—to introduce WMO’s responsibility “to promote activities in operational hydrology”. Changes were also made to the General Regulations to introduce the concept of hydrological advisers to PRs and the designation by the Regional Associations of regional hydrological advisers. In addition, the HWR Programme (HWRP) was identified as a separate major programme of the Organization. So, at last, hydrology was no longer just an application of meteorology but was recognized as a fellow discipline with close links to meteorology.

group photo  
Silver Jubilee of the Commission for Hydrology (Budapest, Hungary, July 1986) — (from left to right): J. Němec (Director, Hydrology and Water Resources Department, WMO Secretariat, 1968-1987); M.A. Kohler (president of CHy, 1960-1968); G.O.P. Obasi (WMO Secretary-General, 1984-2003); E.G. Popov (president of CHy, 1968-1976); R.H. Clark (president of CHy, 1976-1984) and O. Starosolszky (president of CHy, 1984-1993)  

Post Cg-VII: a firm home base

Further sessions of CHy were held in 1976 (Ottawa, Canada), 1980 (Madrid, Spain), 1984 (Geneva), 1988 (Geneva), 1993 (Geneva), 1996 (Koblenz, Germany), 2000 (Abuja, Nigeria) and 2004 (Geneva) but the structure and nature of the HWRP has basically remained the same for well over 30 years. Is this a good thing?, one might ask. In this case, the answer would be a resounding “yes” because, while the political and technical environments surrounding the Organization have changed markedly, the basic needs of the NHSs have remained the same: they still need to collect, store and analyse hydrological data, assess the magnitude and quality of a region’s resources of freshwater and forecast future levels of rivers and aquifers and the magnitude of floods and droughts.

The activities of CHy and of WMO as a whole have been reported down the years in countless articles in the WMO Bulletin. If we look back through these, the Organization can be proud of what it has achieved in supporting national and regional work in operational hydrology over nearly 50 years. In its early days, it faced the challenge of deciding what role it should play in international hydrology and water resources and, as a consequence, defined this in fairly precise terms. By comparison, the basic documents of the other UN agencies offer only more general statements as to their areas of responsibility. While many people may have wished that WMO had taken a much broader view, it had its reasons—and they were good reasons—to limit its area of responsibility. As a result, WMO is unique within the UN system, not only for its technical focus, but also for its clear statement of what topics it will handle. Even more distinctive is its clear understanding that the Organization is composed of the world’s NMSs and NHSs and that it is they which undertake the work of WMO with the support, as appropriate, of the Secretariat.

The decisions of Cg-VII left WMO far from becoming the World Meteorological and Hydrological Organization and even further from becoming the World Geophysical Organization, but they did give the operational hydrological community a clear sign that they could count on the Organization as their natural counterpart within the complex and often confusing world of international freshwater. It is this status and structure that remain to this day, some 33 years later.

New pressures will arise, and are already arising, for the reorganization of agencies within the UN system. Whether or not this will lead to WMO accepting broader responsibilities is for its Members to decide, but one thing is certain, the origins of the Hydrology and Water Resources Programme and the environment in which it grew have served it well and have led to a focused yet flexible international environment in which the NHSs can feel at home and maximize their efforts to work together in support of both national and international development.

Author’s note

The information for this article was drawn from many conversations with those who played a role in establishing the HWRP and, in particular, from the two sources listed below, as well as from my personal experience of nearly 30 years working for the WMO Secretariat. My biggest challenge has been to decide what to include and what to leave out. I owe a great debt of gratitude to all my colleagues, national experts and Secretariat staff for the pleasure that I have gained from working with them and for their friendship. If they disagree with anything that I have written, or consider that I have not recorded something they feel to be important, then I offer them my sincerest apologies.


WMO, 1986: Silver Jubilee of the WMO Commission for Hydrology, Proceedings of the Celebrations held in Budapest on 11 and 12 July 1986, Technical Reports to the Commission for Hydrology No 22, WMO/TD‑No. 84, Geneva.

Batisse, Michel, 2005: The UNESCO Water Adventure, from Desert to Water … 1948–1974 (Du désert jusqu’à l’eau … 1948-1974. La question de l’eau et Unesco: de la “zone aride” à la “Décennie hydrologique”), IHP Essays on Water History No. 1, AFUS History Papers 4, UNESCO, Paris.

* President, International Association of Hydrological Sciences, and former Director, Hydrology and Water Resources Department, WMO Secretariat


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