Dirty Drinking Water Pushes Jessica Biel Up Mt. Kilimanjar

01/12/2010 03:30 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

MIAMI--Hollywood star Jessica Biel, the pop singer-song writer Kenna, the hip-hoppers Lupe Fiasco and Santigold and half dozen friends are climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in East Africa as the new year begins as a way of drawing attention to the problem of unsafe drinking water in much of the world.

Justin Timberlake, the actor and boyfriend of Ms Biel, was one of the first to sign up for the expedition, the organizers say, but he had to drop out to shoot a new movie, "Social Network."

Isabel Lucas, the Australian actress, is making the climb, starting Jan. 7, and so is Alexandra Cousteau, the granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, the ocean explorer who brought the underwater world into millions of living rooms through his television shows.

The climbers are on to a good cause. At least one billion people in developing countries, and probably many more, routinely drink water loaded with filth and bacteria. It is the only water available to them. They are often sick. Nearly 2 million of these people die every year from diseases picked up from the water. Most of the dead are children.

Kenna organized the expedition, inspired by stories from his father, Wold Zemedkun, about the hardship of growing up in Ethiopia and often being sick from drinking the only water he and his family could get. Kenna moved to the United States with his family when he was three years old.

Solving the problem of unsafe drinking water is not rocket science, experts say. It just requires concentrated attention and a good deal of money from the United States and other governments plus coordination of the many relatively small projects that are already underway but that sometimes conflict with one another.

Dirty water kills more children every year than malaria, measles and HIV/AIDS combined. But you don't hear much about the water problem. That's why the stars are going up the mountain in what amounts to a huge publicity stunt.

Kenna's father, now nearing retirement as a finance professor at Norfolk State University in Virginia, said that when he was four years old his closest friend, who was also four, died suddenly. Later, his youngest brother, also four, died. Both boys had had a fever and diarrhea. In a few days they were gone.

"We didn't know the reason," Mr. Zemedkun told me in an interview from his home in Virginia. "Later on we

thought it was probably the water."

It almost certainly was the water. His family got their drinking water from a river. "The water looked nice and clean," he said. "You wouldn't suspect anything." But like the water of so many people in poor countries, it was laced with bacteria. At one point, Mr. Zemedkun said, he almost died himself.

"As children," Mr. Zemedkun said, "we were always sick. We thought we were supposed to get sick." It was part of being a child in Africa, he said.

Whether the entertainers' stunt will be helpful on the water problem is not at all certain. But it surely can't hurt. Big companies like Hewlett Packard and Procter & Gamble and the outfitter, Eddie Bauer, are sponsoring the climb.

The climbers hope to not only get attention for the cause but also to raise money through donations from the sponsors and other contributions. They'll be blogging and Twitting progress reports as they move up the 19,340-foot high mountain. It's the biggest in Africa - not nearly as tough a climb as Mt. Everest and the other Himalayan Mountains, but a challenge none-the-less.

Santigold, the hip-hopper, said the problem of unhealthy water needs a spotlight. "I don't think many people, especially in the United States, realize what a huge problem this is," she said. "So I think just drawing awareness to the problem will be a step in the right direction." #

For More on the Worldwide Water Crisis See: