Drought-deciduous and evergreen species are both common in tropical forests, where there is the need to cope with water shortages during periodic dry spells and over the course of the dry season. Which phenological strategy is favored depends on the long-term balance of carbon costs and gains that leaf phenology imposes as a result of the alternation of wet and dry seasons and the unpredictability of rainfall events. This study integrates a stochastic eco-hydrological framework with key plant economy traits to derive the long-term average annual net carbon gain of trees exhibiting different phenological strategies in tropical forests. The average net carbon gain is used as a measure of fitness to assess which phenological strategies are more productive and more evolutionarily stable (i.e. not prone to invasion by species with a different strategy). The evergreen strategy results in a higher net carbon gain and more evolutionarily stable communities with increasing wet season lengths. Reductions in the length of the wet season or the total rainfall, as predicted under climate change scenarios, should promote a shift towards more drought-deciduous communities, with ensuing implications for ecosystem functioning.