Atoll countries are particularly vulnerable to coastal hazards in the context of global change, which justifies the interest in population exposure assessments. This paper contributes to addressing this need by assessing the current exposure of the population of two areas of the South Tarawa Urban District (Tarawa Atoll, Republic of Kiribati) to coastal erosion and flooding. The assessment is based on data relating to island morphology (digital terrain models and shoreline change), land use (building extension and coastal works) and environmental changes reconstructed for the 1969–2008 period. The results highlight rapid changes in land use and significant differences in current population exposure to coastal erosion and flooding between and within study sites. Between 1969 and 2007–2008, the built area located less than 20 m from the reference shoreline has increased by a factor of 4.2 at Bairiki and by a factor of 32.2 at Eita–Bangantebure, enhancing population exposure given that land elevation is low (12.6 and 77.4 % <2 m at Bairiki and Eita–Bangantebure, respectively). Nevertheless, in Bairiki, 87.5 % of the built area is currently not exposed to coastal erosion (>20 m from the coastline) and flooding (>1.5 m). Building exposure is higher at Eita–Bangantebure, where 71.3 % of the built area is currently not exposed (using the same criteria), but 17.1 % shows medium to very high levels of exposure, due to very low land elevation (22.3 % of the land area <1.5 m) and shoreline recession. The Eita–Bangantebure case study exemplifies the maladaptive trajectories of change that have been reported in other atoll countries.