Early natural historians—Comte de Buffon, von Humboldt, and De Candolle—established environment and geography as two principal axes determining the distribution of groups of organisms, laying the foundations for biogeography over the subsequent 200 years, yet the relative importance of these two axes remains unresolved. Leveraging phylogenomic and global species distribution data for Mimosoid legumes, a pantropical plant clade of c. 3500 species, we show that the water availability gradient from deserts to rain forests dictates turnover of lineages within continents across the tropics. We demonstrate that 95% of speciation occurs within a precipitation niche, showing profound phylogenetic niche conservatism, and that lineage turnover boundaries coincide with isohyets of precipitation. We reveal similar patterns on different continents, implying that evolution and dispersal follow universal processes. , Water availability dictates patterns of global phylogenetic beta diversity in tropical plants.