Last month was a busy one for my colleagues in Apia. Among other important activities, they hosted a visit by my friend Dennis Wendel, USAID Pacific Islands Office Director, who traveled to Upolu to investigate ways to strengthen U.S. development engagement in Samoa.

A consummate development professional with more than 40 years experience in the field, Dennis runs the USAID Pacific Office in Port Moresby which reopened last October. His team oversees U.S. aid programs in twelve Pacific island nations.

Generally speaking, the projects he oversees in the region are focused on key issues such as public health, disaster management, clean water and other environmental challenges, and remediating the impacts of climate change. A major effort involves assisting Papua New Guinea in the area of HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and treatment.

Dennis with the CEO of the Ministry of Finance Tupa’imatuna Iulai Lavea (center), ACEO of Aid Coordination Noumea Simi (far left), my Chargé Chad and ACEO of the Ministry of Finance Henry Ah Ching (right).

From left to right: ACEO of Aid Coordination Noumea Simi, Embassy Chargé Chad Berbert, CEO of the Ministry of Finance Tupa’imatuna Iulai Lavea, Director Dennis Wendel, and ACEO of the Ministry of Finance Henry Ah Ching.

A year ago USAID provided a multi-million-dollar grant to the Apia-based Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP) for climate change remediation projects. Working in partnership with the United Nations Development Program, USAID through our ADAPT project is now also providing technical assistance to the Samoa Tourism Authority and local tourist operators in identifying potential impacts and developing plans to mitigate climate change effects.

ADAPT was launched to establish a fully functional and self-sustaining climate change adaptation project preparation facility for the Pacific islands, Southeast Asia, and certain developing countries elsewhere. The facility will not only support specific projects but will also build the capacity of governments to independently access climate adaptation funding.

The region’s tourism industry is particularly susceptible to disruption, with serious threats posed by even modest changes in sea level, sea chemistry, temperature, or marine patterns. National impact could be severe. For example, tourism is a key driver of the Samoan economy (constituting more than 20% of GDP), and expanding the tourism sector is a key goal in the Government of Samoa’s economic development plan.

Leiataua Isikuki Punivalu briefing the Samoa Tourism Task Force on initial expert findings regarding climate change vulnerabilities and needs assessment.

Meeting with the Samoa Tourism Task Force chaired by Samoa Tourism Authority CEO Sonja Hunter (at head of table).

During Dennis’ visit, a USAID / ADAPT project team presented initial findings about climate change resiliency and impacts to the Samoa Tourism Task Force. USAID’s efforts are part of a larger initiative working to position the Samoan Government for more than US$ 7 million in Global Environment Facility funding for related projects.

Dennis and Chad met as well with a variety of officials from other ministries and agencies, including the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, to discuss current challenges and explore potential future projects.

I was particularly pleased that Filomena Nelson was available to meet Dennis. Filomena is Samoa’s Principal Disaster Management Officer, and she spent time talking our team through Samoa’s disaster mitigation plans, including the implementation of a more effective early warning system. Dennis tells me that he was very impressed by what he saw and heard, and that he looks forward to working with Filomena.

Dennis with Chad and Principal Disaster Management Officer Filomena Nelson at the Meteorology Office in Mulinuu.

With Principal Disaster Management Officer Filomena Nelson at the Meteorology Office in Mulinuu.

Among many other meetings on his packed schedule, Dennis attended the launch of the National University of Samoa’s Community Radio Station and film/journalism editing suite (which the Embassy helped to fund) and consulted with SPREP Director David Sheppard about current initiatives.

Because our development assistance programs are heavily focused on supporting civil society, empowering communities, and building capacity, we arranged for Dennis to meet with Moana Clarke and Roina Vavatau of the Samoa Umbrella for Non Government Organizations (SUNGO) to talk about the role of the NGOs in Samoa and how USAID can best work with them in the future.

There were also briefings and meetings with business leaders, including with tourist operators impacted by the 2009 tsunami. Dennis visited Aleipata, where he spoke with Tautala Taufua of Anita’s Beach Bungalows who lost everything in the tusnami and had to rebuild her business from scratch. She provided our team with valuable insights on both climate change impacts on tourism and on how outside aid agencies might more effectively assist in post-disaster reconstruction efforts.

Tourist operator Tautala Taufua explains how climate change has impacted her business to Dennis, Chad and ADAPT Asia’s Chris Manu.

Talking with Tautala Taufua.

As we’ve been doing with other U.S. Government agencies and departments, we were happy to bring our USAID Director to Samoa so that he could see the country for himself, get to know the dynamic folks running Samoan NGOs and agencies, and survey potential projects within his areas of authority.

From everything I’ve heard, it was a highly productive visit. It’s clear that Dennis went back to Port Moresby with much to think about and work on, and I’m told that he is already planning for future visits.