Climbing Kilimanjaro Because Dirty Water Is Killing Children

Climbing Kilimanjaro Because Dirty Water Is Killing Children
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MIAMI--Greg Allgood will do almost anything to draw attention to the huge number of poor people - more than 1 billion - whose only drinking water is loaded with bacteria and viruses and who are often sick, sometimes so sick they die.

Now, in the name of what he calls the global crisis on drinking water, Mr. Allgood, 50 years old and in pretty good shape, is preparing to climb the biggest mountain in Africa, 19,340-foot-high Mt. Kilimanjaro. One of his drills is running up 17 flights of stairs in his office building in Cincinnati in hiking shoes with a knapsack on his back. He does that eight times-- up, then down, twice a week.

Mr. Allgood, who heads a water purification program at Procter & Gamble, the big American maker of soap and many other drug store items, is going to be part of a platoon of socially-concerned glitterati that includes two pop singer-song writers, Kenna (who does not use his last name) and Lupe Fiasco, and actors Jessica Biel and Isabel Lucas. Justin Timberlake, the pop singer and Ms. Biel's boy friend, had considered joining the expedition, the organizers said, but the date of the climb - in early January - conflicts with a movie he's making.

Mr. Allgood and the others are climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in hopes of creating a buzz that will get people around the world to focus on the stark fact that unhealthy water annually kills 1.8 million people, mostly children - about eight times the number of people who died in the Great Asian Tsunami in 2004. The worst victims of contaminated water get diarrhea, become dehydrated and die. They go quietly, one by one, at home and in little clinics. This is mostly happening in Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America. It is not on the radar of most Americans.

"Most of the world is asleep on the subject of the clean drinking water crisis," said Kenna, who is leading the expedition.

One of the agonizing characteristics of the problem is that it does not have to exist. Dirty water was killing people long before climate change was recognized. The situation may worsen as droughts and downpours alternate more radically. But it has persisted because of neglect.

"This is a solvable problem," said Steven Solomon, the author of a new book being published in the United States in January, "Water: The Epic Struggle For Wealth, Power and Civilization."

"There is enough water for this," Mr. Solomon said. "This is a logistical, political and organizational problem. It doesn't require so much money that there are economic limits. There are no technical problems. It's purely a problem of logistics, organization and political will."

And that's why Mr. Allgood is going up the mountain. He believes that once people understand the magnitude of the problem and that it is preventable, they will begin clamoring for governments "like the U.S. Government, to contribute a lot more significantly toward providing safe drinking water."

More people die every year from diarrhea and other water-borne diseases than from HIV/AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Just about everyone seems to know about the Great Asian Tsunami. But the water problem rarely comes up.

Kenna, whose given name is Kenna Zemedkun, came to the United States from Ethiopia as a child and grew up mainly in Virginia Beach, Va. Until his dad, now a finance professor at Norfolk State University in Virginia, mentioned that he was sending money to Ethiopia to build a well, Kenna said in an interview, "I had no clue about the world water crisis." When Kenna's father was four years old and living in Ethiopia, his best friend, also four, died after drinking foul water. Kenna said his father, himself, "was sick from water-borne diseases for 10 years."

After hearing his father's account, Kenna started putting together a group of high-profile friends to tackle the mountain and looking for commercial sponsors "to do something extreme to raise awareness about an extreme social issue." He calls his Mt. Kilimanjaro project "Summit on the Summit."

Kenna, who is in his early 30s, said he hoped to get the message on water to young people who follow him and his entertainer friends. Hewlett Packard, one of the main sponsors of the project, has built a website at with a slick, high-tech video on mountain climbing. Kenna is promoting the project on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Hewlett Packard is producing a wireless signal on the mountain and outfitting the climbers with laptops. They plan to Twitter as they advance in the five-day journey from a rainforest base to the bare upper reaches of the mountain and, finally, to its icy crown.

"I believe we have a currency that cuts through pop culture and that people will pay attention to us because they feel they know us," Kenna said.

Kenna and the others will be wearing jackets from Eddie Bauer and sleeping in Eddie Bauer tents. Mr. Allgood's company, Procter & Gamble, is one of the main backers. Mr. Allgood is the director of Procter & Gamble's Children's Safe Drinking Water program and Kenna said he saw him as a natural climbing partner.

"He fights for this everyday," Kenna said. "I thought we could all learn from him."

Kenna said he expects about a dozen friends to be climbing with him, including Alexandra Cousteau, the grand daughter of Jacques Cousteau, the underwater explorer, environmentalist and star of the television series "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau," and Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, the grand daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, the assassinated brother of President John F. Kennedy. Elizabeth Gore, an executive at Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation, and two photographers, Michael Muller, who specializes in celebrities and fashion, and Jimmy Chin, who has climbed Mt. Everest, are also in the group. A video crew will be documenting the whole thing.

Mr. Allgood said he has learned how to tell the story of the drinking water crisis so that it inspires people. "If you only give the negatives, you're going to turn people off," he said. The situation seems hopeless. "But if you give them the negative plus the solution - that there are practical, proven and scalable ways to prevent the deaths - they are very inspired and want to do something." #

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