Meet the Celebrities Who Climbed Kilimanjaro to Awaken the World to a Water Crisis

News & Politics

How do you draw the world's attention to a deadly global scourge? Call up your friends and climb a mountain (it could help if your friends are mega-celebrities and MTV wants to make a film about it.) This is how Kenna set out to illuminate the global clean water crisis. Calling it Summit on the Summit, the Grammy-nominated recording artist assembled a team of celebs, activists, and experts, including Jessica Biel, Emile Hirsch, Lupe Fiasco, Santogold, Alexandra Cousteau, and plenty more, to scale the punishing peak of Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest mountain.

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

TreeHugger: Kilimanjaro is no joke. This is the tallest mountain in Africa--it's considered the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. What's it like to climb a beast like this?

Kenna: Hell comes to mind. Lupe Fiasco, who climbed with us, said that climbing to the top of Kilimanjaro was a crucible made in the pits of hell. It was not a comfortable thing to attempt. We all had reason to do it and a serious hope that we would all make it to the top, but we all knew there was a really good risk that we wouldn't be able to make it.

That's what this is about in the first place: doing something extreme to bring attention to something that has champions, but doesn't have a voice yet. The only way to do that really is to push the envelope and force some perspectives.

TreeHugger: I understand your father was a big source of inspiration for you in all this. Tell me about that, and why Kilimanjaro?

Kenna: I can start by saying that I tried to climb Kilimanjaro five years ago and I only got to 18,200 feet and ended up coming home. I went by myself, it was a personal mission of my own. It's a two-pronged inspiration because my dad had always wanted to climb Kilimanjaro. I went in the first place to fulfill my dad's dream in some vicarious way for him. But at the same time I did it to kickstart a journey for me on my album. And when I didn't get to the top I obviously had a vendetta with the mountain.

Then about three years ago my dad came to me and told me he had saved about $10,000 to go dig a well in Ethiopia, where I'm from. Of course I'm going to ask the question "why," since I had no real clue about the global clean water crisis. He shockingly explained that he had water-borne diseases when he was a child, and that his brother died, that his friends died, that his family members died. This was something that he felt very strongly about: getting clean water to children in Ethiopia.

I just ended up, first of all, feeling like a bad son for not knowing all this already, and then taking on a real fervor to figure out what this was about, if it was much wider-spread than just my dad's story. I learned a great deal about it and, with my vendetta, pushed it together into one strong agenda for making some noise for clean water.

TreeHugger: Tell me a little bit about this cast of characters you brought in to help you with this mission.

Kenna: It was a much more spiritual thing than trying to pull people together to just do something. It really came together on it's own. I would mention that I was going to go do this, hoping that I would actually just have a back-up of allies and possible funding from friends and supporting non-profits. It ended up being every time I would mention it, someone would volunteer. Jessica Beil volunteered. I mentioned it to Lupe Fiasco, he volunteered. In the beginning, Justin Timberlake was the first person to hear about it, and he volunteered first.

After that it was a matter of mentioning it to other friends and they automatically wanted to go; people like Isabelle Lucas, Santi White (who is also known as Santogold). It was like if I've got these cultural influences and we all want to do this thing, mainly because they all cared about me and they knew about my dad and knew about the story.

The next thing was: how do we educate ourselves? Which meant having these educational luminaries with us teaching us about the subject, with us being forced to be in one place to learn it the entire time while we were doing something extreme.

I really felt this would bring us all together and create strong allies for the cause. That's basically how it got started. So, of course, we had Alexandra Cousteau, Kick Kennedy, who is Robert F. Kennedy's granddaughter and has been a water actionist for years under her dad.

Then we had Dr. Allgood and sustainability experts like Simon Isaacs and Bernice Eng from Singapore. It ended up being a strong representation of mankind. If you look at this climb you will find yourself on this climb somewhere. As a part of your culture or history, to some degree, there's someone on this climb that represents you.

TreeHugger: What happened to Justin Timberlake? Did he chicken out at the last minute?

Kenna: Yeah, that punk! No. You know what, Justin wanted to go. He actually trained for it. He talked about it more than I did. He ended up having a gig that fell right when I had moved the climb. I had to move the climb twice because we had a recession. We were looking for money to support the project and Justin had been committed to it each time. Then the third time I moved it he had a movie that he was already contractually obligated to do. He actually hates me right now. He's actually genuinely pissed.

TreeHugger: Because he didn't get to go through the wrenching altitude sickness?

Kenna: Yeah, but he's also an extremist. He really wants to make strong statements, and you can tell by his career as a person, he's always been after making strong statements for things that he believes in. And I think he really, really wanted to be there. We had so many calls with him before the climb and on the way to the airport, and his is basically like, "Dude, I wanted to be there. This sucks."

TreeHugger: So actually climbing the mountain, what is it that makes it so difficult, so taxing on the human body?

Kenna: You know, Kilimanjaro is the great equalizer. It's a mountain that knows no one. It doesn't recognize you as an individual and give you a chance. And even if we are there as a group, there's no support mechanism that will equal you out. The altitude alone is the most significant thing. There's less oxygen. You have no idea what your body is going to do, whether or not it's going to be okay with it.

It could be okay with it a week before, but then the week that you actually climb--because of whatever dietary thing you've had, whatever exercise level you've had, whatever--you have no idea what your body is going to do with the information that you'll have on the top of a mountain, whether it be the oxygen, the discomfort, or just the taxing nature of burning 15,000 calories a day when you're only eating 3,000. You really have no idea what your body is going to do.

And that's forgetting the weather, forgetting the snow, rain, sleet, hail that you're going to go through. And forgetting how freezing cold it is and how your fingertips feel going from 78 degrees to 30 degrees to 20 degrees then back to 78 degrees. Not even knowing what part of the day you're going to end up being freezing or warm or whether or not it's going to rain doesn't really make you feel good either.

Everybody should go!

TreeHugger: Did Emile Hirsch give you any good Into the Wild quotes at perfect moments as you're scaling this thing?

Kenna: You know, Emile was the last person to be able to come into the climb. He went in Justin's stead. But he was the most avid. He was the first person to go and get his own gear. He was at REI checking out the proper stuff to have on top of what we had from First Ascent. He really went above and beyond to figure it out.

He was reading Into the Air. He was "the guy" on the climb. He was like, "Into the Wild my ass." He was seriously going above and beyond to be prepared. And I think he really didn't have as much to say about it, he just seemed to be a little more focused than all of us. And he actually is one that had some significant issues on the mountain, which will be in the documentary on March 14th on MTV. (That was my plug, by the way).

TreeHugger: When you tell to people that there is an issue in the world that kills millions a year, how do you describe it?

Kenna: If you can imagine a 747 jet full of children crashing into the side of a mountain every two hours of every day of the entire year, that would be what happens per year. That's how many children die from the fact that they don't have clean water.

TreeHugger: What needs to happen in order for this to begin to change

Kenna: Well, the thing that individuals can do automatically is donate money to water causes like Charity Water, or our beneficiaries like Children's Safe Drinking Water, Water for People, and the UNHCR. I think that's effective. Those non-profits do their work and they really are powerful in their work ethic.

But I think that the most important thing people can do is educate themselves about the cause. I'm less inclined to ask people to send money than I'm inclined to ask people to learn. Learn about the billion people that die. Why? Where? They're indigenous to what? What is the issue with each one of those things, if it's sanitation or if it's clean water? How will it affect us here domestically in America, and how does it affect us already financially?

I think that it's a much more fundamental and fiscal issue than it is a charitable one. I don't believe that people in America realize how much money we spend on things that are a direct result of water-borne illnesses.

I'll give an example: 70% (and I may be wrong on this, but not too wrong, it's close) of the reasons why people go to hospitals worldwide is water-borne illness. And it's solvable water-borne illnesses.

If we could spend money on water and we could free up, let's say, 40% of that expenditure on hospitals, doctors, nurses, resources directed at healthcare, how much money would we save per year? How much money would we save, and how many doctors would we free up to focus on HIV or more taxing unsolvable diseases? 40% would probably be billions upon billions of dollars.

Now, forgetting that, let's go to HIV. We spend all this money on antivirals in developing nations. The reason why people have antivirals is because they weren't educated in the first place about HIV because they didn't get to go to school. They didn't get to school because they were spending six to eight hours and walking six miles a day chasing clean water. So they're not in school. They don't learn about HIV. They get HIV, and then they take antivirals with water that's infested with disease with a compromised immune system. How effective is that? How does that make sense?

So it's a fundamental fiscal issue. USAID sends food to developing nations, and they spend money on that food. That food cannot be activated without water. We spend money on that, and a good percentage of that goes to waste because people don't have water and/or they'll eat it with the water they have and get sick and die.

So the reality is that water is the number one issue around the world, and we pay for it. We pay for the fact that water is not a focus. We pay by way of research for HIV, we pay for it on food, we pay for it in so many other ways where in actuality if we'd focus on the crux of the issue, the foundation of the problems, we might actually be able to save ourselves a great deal of money and save a great number of lives.

TreeHugger: How much of this is a technological fix? If you gave everybody the right water filter, for example, would you make a big dent in the problem, or is that the wrong way to approach it?

Kenna: I think it's very specific to the region you're in. Some people have water, it's just not clean. Some people don't have any water at all because they aren't able to dig the well that would actually support them. Some people just don't have the education to maintain the wells that they have.

So it's really being focused on the region, what it is they need, and helping them support it in developing nations. And then it's really appropriations overall. What are the things that these people need for antivirals, for poverty, for women's empowerment? If you realize what they all need, it's water. What is the one thing we cannot survive past four days without? It's water.

It's the number one thing that a human life needs to exist, and it should be the number one issue that's focused on worldwide. Without it, mankind does not exist. So why is it number seven on the Millennium Development Goals? Even though they say it's not in order, it is the least goal-driven.

And I'm not as much upset about it as I'm like, "Well, this is just illogical. It doesn't make sense." We're literally spending so much money out of our own tax dollars and individual donations to fix a problem we started, in some ways, because we're not focusing on it.

TreeHugger: Kilimanjaro has become a symbol for climate change. The melting ice cap was made famous by Hemingway's story, and it was in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Given that it's a symbol for climate change, do you draw a connection between the climate change issue and the clean water issue?

Kenna: Absolutely. Kilimanjaro was multi-meaning while we climbed it. It was an extreme thing for us to do, but it's actually the site of some of the major issues. Right below it there are people who are suffering from all the many different issues that surround water as a whole. It's a symbol of the issue and the solution. Both are there.

Climate change is a huge water problem because it changes the migration of people. Furthermore, Kilimanjaro is a source of water for some of these people. When this melts, and that means less water is coming down over time. Teople are then having to travel further to get their clean water, which causes conflict because people are protecting their water sources because there's such a shortage.

It's significant on so many levels. The environment affects water, water affects people's ability to live, and in order for them to live, they'll fight. And if they'll fight, then we are finding ourselves in more of an issue that we actually have to protect ourselves from. We can't know who people will decide to ally with at the end of the day. It could be with anyone, and it could be with factions that are against the West, which ends up fueling the whole battle for terror.

It's one of those things where if you really are paying attention, if you really do care about the world your children are going to live in, then you'll look at where things begin and look for the solution for those problems that are the foundations for the chaotic house we live in. If you don't care, then go about your way being ignorant about it. It's fine. That's bliss for some people.

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