MIAMI--When Wold Zemedkun was in high school in Ethiopia he decided to take a sample of the water his family drank every day to his biology class. The water came from a nearby river. It was sparkling clear and tasted fine.
"We put it under a microscope and that clear water was completely full of moving creatures, billions of them," Mr. Zemedkun told me in an interview. Maybe it wasn't actually billions of creatures, but he remembers the water as shockingly unhealthy.
It was stories like that, said Mr. Zemedkun's son, the singer-song writer Kenna, that inspired him to organize an expedition of Hollywood entertainers and others to climb the highest mountain in Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro, to attract attention to the problem of unsafe drinking water in developing countries.
Among those who have signed up for the expedition early in 2010 are actors Jessica Biel and Isabel Lucas, hip-hoppers Lupe Fiasco and Santigold and Alexandra Cousteau, the granddaughter of the underwater explorer, Jacques Cousteau. She is the founder of an organization called "Blue Legacy" that focuses on water problems.
But by the time the expedition was scheduled, Justin had already committed to making a new movie, Social Network. Justin and Jessica were together at a party in Los Angeles to publicize the climb. But Justin won't be climbing.
Around the world, experts say, at least 1 billion people routinely drink unsafe water. They are regularly sick. They miss work and they miss days at school. A ghastly number of them die each year -- nearly 2 million, according to the World Health Organization, mostly children under the age of five.
Kenna was born in Ethiopia in East Africa and came to the United States with his parents when he was three. Africa is the part of the world where the most people are struggling with unhealthy drinking water. It is bad also in parts of Asia and Latin America.
As I spoke with Kenna's father, the older man recalled the reaction of his high school biology teacher to the river water under the microscope.
"The professor says, 'Is this what you drink? That's what your whole family drinks?' And I said, 'yes.' And he said, 'And nobody gets sick?' And I said, 'We're sick all the time.'"
The professor told Mr. Zemedkun the family should be boiling their drinking water. They took his advice. But no one ever come around to try to clean up the river or to offer the family and their neighbors disinfectants for the water. That is the way it goes for most people whose only drinking water is unhealthy. Almost no one is on the case.
The celebrity climb is being sponsored by Hewlett Packard, Procter & Gamble and Eddie Bauer. The climbers will be using Hewlett Packard gear to blog and Twitter as they work their way up the mountain.
For a decade or so, Procter & Gamble, has been making a powder that people dissolve in their water to get rid of bacteria and other unwanted things. The company does not make money on the powder. It is sold mostly at cost. But it has gotten the company a lot of good publicity and it has made a tiny dent in the problem in developing countries.
Greg Allgood runs the program on clean drinking water at Procter & Gamble and he is going up the mountain with Kenna and the others. At 50, he is the oldest of the climbers. He's athletic and in good shape and he's been training hard. Even so, he says he's not sure he'll make it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. "I'm gong to do my very best," Mr. Allgood said. "I have fantastic motivation--to help save kids by providing safe drinking water."
Kenna told me he tried to climb Kilimanjaro a few years back as a quiet test of himself. He did not make it. And that's another reason he organized the celebrity climb.
For More on the Worldwide Water Crisis See: http://1h2o.org
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