Faced with a well-documented fresh water crisis in many parts of the world, international institutions are advocating market-based solutions involving the privatization and commodification of water. The definition of water as a commodity by multilateral organizations in the early 1990s allowed a handful of transnational corporations, supported by the World Bank and the IMF, to become centrally involved in management of public water services in poorer countries. The years 2000 to 2003 saw the retreat of TNC investment in water due to national economic crises, social protest, and the difficulties of extracting profit delivering water to indigent consumers. This article examines the shift in discursive strategy of development organizations, and the resulting rise and fall of TNC involvement in water and sanitation provision in the Third World. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.