- Two major forms of vegetation patterns have been observed in drylands: nearly periodic patterns with characteristic length scales, and amorphous, scale-free patterns with wide patch-size distributions. The emergence of scale-free patterns has been attributed to global competition over a limiting resource, but the physical and ecological origin of this phenomenon is not understood. Using a spatially explicit mathematical model for vegetation dynamics in water-limited systems, we unravel a general mechanism for global competition: fast spatial distribution of the water resource relative to processes that exploit or absorb it. We study two possible realizations of this mechanism and identify physical and ecological conditions for scale-free patterns. We conclude by discussing the implications of this study for interpreting signals of imminent desertification.