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Booming population, rising seas threaten future of island nation

David Gray / Reuters

Binata Pinata stands on top of a rock holding a fish her husband Kaibakia just caught off Bikeman islet, located off South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati.

 

David Gray / Reuters

North and South Tarawa are seen from the air. Kiribati consists of a chain of 33 atolls and islands that stand just meters above sea level, spread over a huge expanse of otherwise empty ocean.

The ocean laps against a protective seawall outside the maternity ward at Kiribati's Nawerewere Hospital, marshaling itself for another assault with the next king tide.

Inside, a basic clinic is crowded with young mothers and newborn babies, the latest additions to a population boom that has risen as relentlessly as the sea in a deeply Christian outpost where family planning is still viewed with skepticism.

It is a boom that threatens to overwhelm the tiny atoll of South Tarawa as quickly as the rising seas. Some 50,000 people, about half of Kiribati's total population, are already crammed onto a sand and coral strip measuring 6 square miles.

 

David Gray / Reuters

A baby lies on a bed in the maternity ward of the Nawerewere Hospital on South Tarawa.

David Gray / Reuters

A pregnant woman sits inside her small hut as a boy sits on the steps below in the village of Betio on South Tarawa.

David Gray / Reuters

An abandoned house that is affected by seawater during high tides stands next to a small lagoon near the village of Tangintebu on South Tarawa, Kiribati.

Straddling the equator and spread over 2 million square miles of otherwise empty ocean, Kiribati's 32 atolls and one raised coral island have an average height above sea level of just 6 and a half feet.

Studies show surrounding sea levels rising at about 2.9 mm a year, well above the global average of 1 - 2 mm a year.

Kiribati President Anote Tong has grimly predicted his country will likely become uninhabitable in 30-60 years because of inundation and contamination of its fresh water supplies. Read the full story.

Reuters' Photographers Blog: David Gray describes 'that sinking feeling'

David Gray / Reuters

A dog sits in the shade of a mangrove tree as a woman uses a fork to dig for shellfish on the reef-mud flats of a lagoon located at South Tarawa.

David Gray / Reuters

A boy covered in reef mud reacts as he stands with other boys in the village of Ambo on South Tarawa.

David Gray / Reuters

A girl sits on a log next to the roots of a tree, which have been exposed as a result of high tides, near the village of Teaoraereke on South Tarawa.

David Gray / Reuters

Storm clouds gather above the small huts and tower on Bikeman islet, located off South Tarawa. The tower used to mark the center of the islet, but shifting sand over the years has pushed the tower further into the lagoon.

David Gray / Reuters

Newly made sandbags sit on a wall on a causeway that connects the town of Bairiki and Betio on South Tarawa.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Images taken May 23-25, 2013 and made available to NBC News today.

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