The weaponization of civilian infrastructure

In the past decades, state and non-state actors have deliberately attacked civilians in armed conflicts across the globe. Technological developments, changes in warfare, and attempts to dilute international law have made war safer for soldiers but more dangerous for civilians. While acknowledging this trend, the existing literature defines civilian harm narrowly as deaths that occur during armed hostilities. This ignores important dimensions of civilian suffering that result from the targeting of civilian infrastructure.

For instance, the most serious effects of the 1991 Iraq war were not the direct but the indirect casualties that resulted from the destruction of Iraq’s electrical system. Civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes were relatively low, with most estimates putting the death toll around 3,000 (Thomas 2001). However, according to some estimates, over 100,000 people eventually lost their lives as a result of the shutdown of the electrical grid that led to the loss of water, sewer, and power services to Baghdad (Thomas 2001, 165–66). Thus, while the bombing campaign itself was relatively restrained and precise, it brought about a humanitarian catastrophe. As one critic wrote, “With this kind of strategy in use, the traditional definition of collateral damage is inadequate to calculate the suffering that war imposes on civilians” (Lopez 1991, 35).


Indirect but not less severe

I argue that civilian victimization (Downes 2008) is more than the direct killing of civilians, but includes indirect forms of violence such as the targeting of civilian infrastructure. This refers to attacks on the food supply; healthcare and education facilities; water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities; energy provision; and transport infrastructure (including sieges and blockades). In addition to attacks on such facilities, armed actors sometimes also try to capture, or manipulate civilian infrastructure in a way which turns it into a weapon. Thus, weaponization entails the targeting, capture, and manipulation of civilian infrastructure by armed actors.

While not a new tactic (water poisonings and urban sieges have been known since medieval times), armed conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) since the early 2000s and most recently, in Ukraine, have seen new heights in the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructures. For instance, attacks on water-related infrastructure such as dams, pipelines, water treatment plants, and distribution systems, have increased dramatically particularly in civil conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen in the past decade (Gleick 2019, 1744–45). Notably, these attacks involve both internal and external state and non-state actors (Sowers, Weinthal, and Zawahri 2017).

Such indirect forms of violence against civilians have largely been neglected by scholars of (civil) war. When they are discussed, they are treated as “limited or low-casualty violence,” or “low-casualty terrorism” (Stanton 2016, 43, 48). While this might be true in the moment of targeting civilian infrastructure, the medium and long-term consequences can be as or even more severe than direct forms of killings.


PGMs are what states make of it

I contend that the targeting of civilian infrastructure is directly connected to the development of precision-guidance technology. While one could think that war has become more restrained, several scholars have pointed out that this is not necessarily the case, as “precision-guidance technology is only as good or bad as the strategies it serves and the rules that control its use” (Shue 2011, 466). Thus, when the latter prescribe the targeting of civilian infrastructure for instance as dual-use objects, precision-guided munitions (PGMs) are actually more likely to hit their targets than unguided or ‘dumb’ bombs. Thus, it is not technological change as such that matters, but the alignment between changing technology and changing norms, with some scholars arguing that there are efforts to broaden the definition of a military objective, i.e. a legitimate target (Dill 2014). As several scholars have criticized, the advent of PGMs might contribute to the rehabilitation of a discredited type of bombing, punishment. Punishment (and strategic bombing in general) have been shown to be both ineffective and immoral (Pape 1996). The targeting of civilian infrastructure by PGMs is disguised as cleaner bombing that puts more pressure on civilians at the same time (Shue 2011). In line with this, it is used to displace civilian populations that are associated with the enemy or inhabit territory that belligerents want to conquer or annex (Downes 2008). The increased precision of weapons along with a potential dilution of the norms that protect noncombatants has far-reaching consequences for civilians in conflict zones, but also for potential perpetrators of violence that might feel emboldened, such as Russia.


Looking ahead

More research is needed in order to understand the causes and consequences of the weaponization of civilian infrastructure in armed conflict, which is used both by state and non-state actors in both inter- and intrastate war. This would be the first step in order to develop recommendations for the protection of civilian infrastructure in conflict zones. Already now, the long-term, indirect consequences of attacks on infrastructure should be integrated into military planning and when considering the proportionality of attacks. International rules should be developed that protect civilians beyond immediate effects and consider the adverse and lingering consequences of infrastructural damage. As Gleick (2019, 1738) notes, international law has focused most on the prohibition of intentional attacks on civilians or the limitation of the use of specific weapons, such as chemical and biological weapons. Less attention has been paid to the secondary or indirect effects of the destruction of civilian infrastructure. Legal reforms are needed to more explicitly protect civilian infrastructure and improve the enforcement of existing laws.



Regine Schwab ist promovierte Politikwissenschaftlerin und ist als wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin an der Hessischen Stiftung Friedens- und Konfliktforschung (HSFK) und an der Goethe Universität Frankfurt tätig. Arbeitsschwerpunkte siehe .


Dill, Janina. 2014. Legitimate Targets? Social Construction, International Law and US Bombing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (March 17, 2023).

Downes, Alexander B. 2008. Targeting civilians in war. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Gleick, Peter H. 2019. “Water as a Weapon and Casualty of Conflict: Freshwater and International Humanitarian Law.” Water Resources Management 33(5): 1737–51.

Lopez, George A. 1991. “The Gulf War: Not so Clean.” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 47. (March 30, 2023).

Pape, Robert A. 1996. Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Shue, Henry. 2011. “Target-Selection Norms, Torture Norms, and Growing US Permissiveness.” In The Changing Character of War, eds. Hew Strachan and Sibylle Scheipers. Oxford University Press, 0. (February 22, 2023).

Sowers, Jeannie, Erika Weinthal, and Neda Zawahri. 2017. “Targeting Environmental Infrastructures, International Law, and Civilians in the New Middle Eastern Wars.” Security Dialogue 48(5): 410–30.

Stanton, Jessica A. 2016. Violence and Restraint in Civil War: Civilian Targeting in the Shadow of International Law. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Thomas, Ward. 2001. The Ethics of Destruction: Norms and Force in International Relations. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.